Every year, a bearded man in a Santa suit and big black boots walks through the doors of Grizzly Peak retirement community and delivers gifts to veteran residents.
Eric Wells of Stevensville, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Gulf War, is in his fifth year of playing St. Nicholas for veterans in independent and assisted living facilities, and private residences in Missoula and Ravalli counties.
Wells, who retired from service in October 1993, is part of Santa Socks, an annual tradition has brought stockings full of goodies and holiday cheer to 400 veterans since it began in 2008.
“We started pretty small,” Wells said. “Four group homes down in Ravalli County, and four or five individual residences.”
The first of many stops Friday, Grizzly Peak is home to 17 veterans who served in World War II and the Vietnam War.
This year, Wells and his team of “magical elves” will visit six senior facilities, and eight to 10 individuals in the county alone. The elves are a group of anywhere from two to 25 individuals, Wells said. First-time volunteers are welcomed.
In previous years, members of veteran auxiliary groups helped deliver gifts as far as the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls. When the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a policy change that would disallow the use of vans for non-veterans, Wells, a driver for the deliveries, disagreed.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. We have plenty of veterans who are housebound without visitors – let’s visit them,’ “ he said.
Susan Campbell Reneau was among the first to agree.
The daughter of a veteran who is also heavily involved with veterans events, Reneau plays a large part in stuffing the insulated camouflage bags with beanies, socks, toys, and toiletries, and then helping to deliver them.
“I love Susan’s enthusiasm,” said Pat Culver, one of the elves.
Culver has known Reneau off and on for about 15 years, and cited Reneau’s contagious positive attitude as the reason she volunteered for the first time this year.
While handing out gifts at Grizzly Peak, Wells and Reneau shook hands and traded stories with veterans. Their visits veterans always seem different around Christmastime, Wells said.
“Every year, there might be a few veterans that during other times of the year are unresponsive,” Wells said. “And suddenly, when we arrive, we’re able to get a response. That’s the really rewarding part, it feels good.”
The efforts wouldn’t be possible without the support of member organizations such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliaries, Marine Corps League, Elks Lodge, Disabled American Veterans and other military supporters in Missoula and Ravalli counties, Wells said.
The coming days will be the busiest for the volunteers. Eight visits are scheduled Saturday, and deliveries will continue through Christmas Day.
Wells also extended a warm season’s greetings to the servicemen and women currently protecting our country.
“It’s important to support the men and women currently serving, whether they are in quote ‘harm’s way’ or not,” Wells said. “They are still out there, regardless, and we have to remember them all the time.”
Dylan Chaffin is a journalism major at the University of Montana and a reporting intern for the Missoulian.