Christmas to Share
Doris and Irene just can’t stop giving
their annual holiday party for strangers
How can you tell you’ve been doing something a long, long time? When you can’t remember whether this is the 50th year or the 51st. That’s how long Doris Pullen and Irene Robbins have been hosting a generous Christmas party they call “Christmas to Share.”
“We thought the 50th party was last year,” Irene said. “Close enough,” said Doris – setting them both laughing together. These two longtime friends practically finish each other’s sentences. They also became partners in an estate sale service that everyone just calls “Doris and Irene.” That venture has its roots in their kindness, as well.
Early on, the women held smaller annual parties in their homes, for a few guests who might not have families or receive presents. They invited elderly or disabled people the pair had met, who lived alone or in nursing homes. Before they knew it, the list grew much, much larger. This year, their party and sit-down holiday dinner may have as many as 125 guests!
This escalation of kindness is not surprising if one knows the active faith and open hearts these two women share. They collect people, whether while visiting homes on behalf of their church or even while at work. Their compulsion to befriend folks together began long ago when Doris worked in a florist shop where Irene did the books and they were asked to help a neighbor who lived behind the store. Her name was Nona.
“The post lady attached herself to her and would come in the store to buy little gifts to surprise her,” Irene said. “She asked us to look in on Nona and we got to know her. She was a corker.”
Originally, the two women took some of their “orphans” caroling and on a church bus tour of Christmas lights. They took Nona along.
As Nona’s health declined, she asked her two friends to take care of her final arrangements. They promised. After her death, they cleaned and spruced up her house and held a sale of her furnishings, then oversaw the sale of the property. “The money went to her church,” Doris explained.
Soon after, two sisters who lived near Nona asked them for the same favor and again they promised. From there, Irene said, their estate sale service grew into a part-time business, even as they kept their real jobs.
“Really, we never meant for it to be a business …,” Irene explained. “It just got out of hand,” said Doris. Eventually, Doris’ niece, Jan Kelley, and Irene’s daughter, Karen Hines, have stepped in and are taking over operations of what has grown to be the area’s leading estate sale service.
“Christmas to Share” was inspired by church visitation, Irene said. “That’s where we learned to love older people and see the need. And you’d have to be blind not to see it.”
Fortunately, their husbands, Marvin Robbins and Robert Pullen, long ago surrendered willingly to act as a support squad for their wives’ good works. Once, during a visitation, the women agreed to bathe a fellow who seemed to be bed-bound. While he was in the tub they phoned their spouses to bring not only clean clothes, but bedclothes, too. The husbands hustled to the scene to find Mr. Needed-A-Bath all pink and clean and ... well, Doris said, “they were just really good sports about it.”
“I guess nothing we get into surprises them,” Irene agreed.
They don’t think it’s a chore to buy gifts for more than 100, serve a meal and provide entertainment because over these 50-odd years, they learned to prepare year-round. Both can spot a bargain, so they constantly stockpile gifts of cosmetics, clothing, costume jewelry and other goodies. Irene always remembers that one of their guests’ only wish was “a towel.”
“There’s a corner of stuff in my house up to here right now,” Irene admitted, raising her hand above her head. As December’s big date approaches, Doris and Irene activate a lot of wonderful Santa’s helpers.
Some donors just give money. Other recruits have a wrap party, wrapping every present in beautiful holiday paper and ribbons. One faithful couple has organized the food and cooking for years.
As the guest list now includes more than 10 nursing homes (whose staff chooses residents who are able to attend), Irene and Doris count themselves very lucky to have the help of a local medical transport fleet for “limo” service. When their guest list outgrew their homes, they obtained permission to hold it at Grand Avenue Baptist Church, although it is not an official church event, “which is perfect,” Irene said.
When the big day finally comes, the wrapped gifts are coordinated by color for each nursing home, with name tags and all the trimmings.
“They will not open their presents until they get home,” said Doris. “They hang onto them!”
There has been entertainment over the years by performers as diverse as an Elvis tribute artist, a miniature horse dressed as a reindeer and, currently, a gospel choir. Sometimes, a bit of dancing breaks out!
Volunteer photographers take a picture of everyone with Santa. Bedford’s Camera & Video prints and gives the portraits to all the guests. The women have been touched – but uplifted – to see these Santa portraits displayed at the funerals of some of their guests.
Irene and Doris began to dress alike for the party years ago. Lately, they’ve been wearing matching Santa outfits and you’ll never believe where they found them: “Frederick’s of Hollywood!” they shrieked and then, giggled.
“But we wear pants with ours!” Irene said.
All the happiness the party creates makes any work or expense worthwhile to them. Although it is hard to believe, given their zippy energy and flawless appearance, they are both 80 years old.
“We’ve been doing this for 50 years, we’re 80; so we’ve been saying we’re going to stop,” Irene said. They’ve been trying to recruit replacements for a while. Both realize that even though they make it sound easy, giving a party for 125 people is daunting to someone who has volunteered as just one cog of their wheel.
But will they really stop after this year?
“I flat don’t know,” Irene admitted, doubting her own declaration of the end. “We’re saying this is the last year. I even put it in our letter. You tell me, when someone only wants a towel, when are you supposed to stop?”
In the meantime, there is this year’s party to throw. It’s on! And these best friends, for the 50th – or 51st – time, are ready. They can’t wait to show their love, with a gift for every guest.
By Lynn Wasson
This story appears in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.