"Santa Sandy" and Her Elves Busy Collecting Gifts for 172 Heritage Health Center Residents:

For 172 residents at Heritage Health Care Center in Utica, N.Y., Christmas will be merry and bright once again thanks to the tireless work of Sandy “Santa Claus” Smith and her band of helper elves.

This year, as she has done for almost two decades, the West Winfield resident and her team of volunteers are already hard at work meeting the gift requests of residents receiving care at the 150-year-old non-profit facility.

“To me this is what Christmas is all about, and it makes me feel good at the holidays,” said Smith, a sprightly 67-year-old, who plans to step down following this Christmas after 17 years of creating smiles for others. “Kids get remembered with toy drives, but the people in nursing homes are often forgotten.”

Smith said she began the tradition in 2001, the year her mother passed away following a stint in rehab at Heritage. She was working at the Savings Bank of Utica where she was the president of the Employees Club and the club had monies that needed to be used up, since it was being disbanded. Smith suggested getting some names of residents who could use some gifts at the home and that year they adopted 10 residents.

The following year, one of Smith’s co-workers asked her if she could organize the present drive again, as they all had so much fun buying for the residents and granting their Christmas wishes. So, Smith put the word out and about 25 co-workers volunteered to adopt a resident. Each year the present drive grew bigger and bigger and, even after Smith left the bank to pursue her own business, she continued the drive with the support of volunteers from the Federated Church of West Winfield, her craft group and local Rotarians.

Smith and her passionate volunteers take it upon themselves to fulfill as many resident wishes as possible. In years past they have purchased fleece jackets, scarfs, outfits, an old truck calendar, a calendar with scenic photos of Vietnam, as well as a hat for a proud Navy veteran with the words, “The Navy Rules the Seas.”

As we speak, red, white and green wrapped packages cover Smith’s living room floor along with her sofas and chairs. The presents will continue to pile up until Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 10 a.m. when Smith and half a dozen volunteers make the short drive to Heritage Health Care Center to place the presents under the facility’s Christmas tree where they will remain until Christmas morning.

Although Smith doesn’t see the residents open the gifts Christmas morning, she and her team feel fulfilled knowing that they have helped brighten someone else’s day.

“It’s important to me that these residents know that someone cares and thinks they are worthwhile,” said Smith. “That makes it all worth doing.”

“We are extremely grateful to Sandy and her volunteers for all that they do for our residents,” added Heritage Health Care Center Therapeutic Recreation Director Michelle Mathis. “We put five to eight `wish list’ items on the list for each resident and they will often get them all, along with trays of delicious homemade baked cookies. It’s unbelievable the work that that do to put a smile on our residents’ faces.”

For those interested in volunteering or donating gifts to this year’s drive, please contact Mathis at (315) 797-7392 x 320.

Featured in the photo are (L to R): Sandy Smith, Chris Merritt, Doug Capraro, Gail Royce, Barbara Huntley, Gail Smith, Bob Royce.

Seniors set to showcase athletic skills at 2nd annual Senior olympics:

More than 60 seniors from several New York state nursing facilities operated by The Grand Healthcare System will gather at The Grand Rehabilitation and Nursing in Guilderland (428 NYS 146, Altamont) Wednesday, Sept. 27 to take part in the 2nd annual Senior Olympics.

The inspirational sporting event, which will run from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., will include competition in a multitude of sports and games, including basketball, table bowling, horseshoes, frisbee toss, cornhole and golf putting on the facility’s recently installed three-hole therapeutic putting green.

“The purpose of the Senior Olympics is to create one large event that brings all of our residents together from each of our New York facilities,” said Jeremy B. Strauss, CEO of the Queens-based The Grand Healthcare System. “Research shows that social support plays a key role in overall health as people age. By bringing everyone together, we are not only providing our seniors with the chance to interact with one another, but also enjoy stimulating fun physical and mental activities.”

The day will get underway with local veterans raising the stars and stripes and singing the national anthem. Following the day’s competition, which is designed to accommodate residents who are mobile, as well as those in wheelchairs, a medal ceremony will be held honoring the participants. Trophies will be awarded to the winner of each game, as well as the Senior Olympics’ overall winner.

“Residents have been training hard over the past month for this event,” said Jim Connolly, administrator, The Grand Rehabilitation and Nursing in Guilderland. “Each facility has held special training days where residents have had the chance to hone their skills and practice the sports in which they will be competing.”

“The winter and summer Olympics are much more than quadrennial competitions. They are events where athletes come together to celebrate life and the human spirit,” added Strauss. “It is our goal to replicate that special experience for our residents.”

The Grand Healthcare System is one of New York’s leading healthcare companies. The company, which provides rehabilitation and nursing services to patients who require either short- or long-term nursing care following hospitalization, operates facilities in Queens, Pawling, Poughkeepsie, Guilderland, Chittenango, Utica and Rome, N.Y.

For more information about The Grand at Guilderland, please call (518) 861-5141 or visit

About The Grand Healthcare System

The Grand Healthcare System offers a full continuum of premium healthcare services across its state-of-the-art health facilities, regardless of whether an individual is there for an extended stay or for one of its premium specialty care services. Unique all-inclusive health facilities in Queens, Pawling, Poughkeepsie, Guilderland, Chittenango and Rome, NY make it a preferred destination for individuals seeking high quality healthcare with modern and convenient amenities. Among the services and programs provided are: stroke rehabilitation at The Walter Strauss Stroke Center (The Grand Rehabilitation and Nursing at Queens), amputee therapy and training program, bariatric rehabilitation, cardiac therapy, complex medical care program, hip repair and joint replacement recovery program, IV antibiotic therapy, medical nutrition therapy, medical shuttle service and transportation vans. For more information about The Grand Healthcare System, please call (718) 215-6000 or visit