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Pam Urnowey started visiting the elderly in nursing homes when she was 9 years old. The first visits were at Christmas, and the delight she saw in the residents — old and ailing and often alone — left a powerful impression.

"They didn't have anyone. And for them to get something at Christmas would light them up. Even for someone to visit them. They just didn't have anybody."

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She started visiting nursing homes and assisted living centers about once a month after that, and it became her life's work. She is marketing director for Home Instead, which provides non-medical services to the elderly in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

And Christmas is still her favorite time of year.

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This is when she gathers gifts for aging poor people whose needs are brought to her attention by county social workers. The people at Meals on Wheels and Partners in Care in Anne Arundel County keep an eye out for her, too.

These are not necessarily Home Instead clients, though this program, "Be a Santa to a Senior," was begun by the company's founders more than a decade ago. The company has provided more than 1.2 million gifts to more than 700,000 seniors across the country — more than 10,000 in Maryland.

Their requests are heartbreakingly modest. A small holiday ham. Cookies, puzzle books. A clock with large numbers. Lap robes, slippers, light bulbs. Glasses repaired. Some cleaning supplies.

"One woman wrote that she loved angels and was in need of prayers," said Ms. Urnowey of this year's requests. "That's all she asked for."

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Several gentlemen asked for "smell-ums," a word her grandfather used to use to refer to aftershave, and it made her laugh.

"But there are a lot of requests for holiday food and for coats and sweaters and hats and gloves."

This is where you enter the picture.

For the fourth holiday season, I am asking you to be a Santa to a Senior.

The first year, Sun readers responded with $4,000 in donations. The economy had tanked and took donations with it, but these donations helped the program rebound, and Ms. Urnowey was able to provide gifts and $50 or $100 gift cards to more than 500 seniors.

The next year, Sun readers sent donations of more than $11,000 — enough to help 800 seniors. Last year, donations topped $22,000. More than 1,000 seniors received gifts thanks to you.

There are angel trees in the Kmarts in Crofton and Edgewater and in the Walmart in Catonsville. You can go there to choose a senior and fulfill his or her wish. Or you can call Ms. Urnowey and ask for the name of a senior. Purchase the gift — and perhaps add something fun to the package — wrap it and return it to the store.

But you can also send a check.

Ms. Urnowey uses her holiday magic to turn the donations into gifts and gift cards from Target, Kmart or grocery stores, and county social workers scramble like crazy to deliver them as close to the holiday as possible — to make it more like Christmas.

"People don't like to give gift cards," she said. "They think it is impersonal. But that is what they ask for. The money to buy the food or things that they need."

The accounting firm of Berman, Goldman & Ribakow in Columbia, Apple Insurance of Baltimore, Dr. Holly Green, who has a dental practice in Annapolis, and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson Law Group in Washington have stepped forward to grant the holiday wishes of dozens of needy seniors. Your office could think about doing this, too.

Dec. 15 is the deadline.

Call Ms. Urnowey at 410-349-2320 for the name of a senior. Or make a check payable to Home Instead and write "Be a Santa to a Senior" in the notes. Mail it to Home Instead, 1511 Ritchie Highway, Suite 103, Arnold, MD. 21012.

At this time of year, that Hallmark spot in our hearts is easily touched by the needs of children, military families, the homeless and those in hospitals. Make room for a senior citizen there, too.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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