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Christmas at Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center

12/21/2021

Note: This piece is the second in a series of stories about holiday traditions at the five Human Development Centers across the state run by the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

We all know that Santa Claus has his famous list. We try hard all year to be more “nice” and less “naughty” so Santa will help us have a wonderful Christmas. We recently spent some time with the staff and residents at the Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center (SEAHDC), and they have nothing to worry about – they all will definitely be on Santa’s “nice” list!

Each of the five Human Development Centers across the state has its own unique Christmas activities and traditions with staff and residents. The SEAHDC in Warren is no different, but their Christmas celebration this year is extra special.

Last year, the staff had to limit the activities for their SEAHDC family to keep everyone healthy and safe due to the pandemic. Tekeila Rawls, Quality Assurance Manager at SEAHDC, said that the staff was disappointed that all their fun activities for the residents had to be put on the shelf last year. But she said that the Employee Relations Council, with help from all the staff, raised enough money to buy extra gifts for the residents to help make up for missing out on the fun and exciting activities they had planned.

This year, however, Rawls and her fellow staff were given the green light to host Christmas activities for the residents again (with the proper safety precautions, of course). Staff felt like they owed it to their residents to really go above and beyond this year, so they went all out.

SEAHDC started spreading Christmas cheer loud for everyone to hear by setting up a day-long Christmas Festival earlier this month. The festival began with an old-fashioned country hoedown for the residents. The residents dressed up in plaid shirts and cowboy boots, ready to boot scoot the day away.

Staff set up several activity stations for residents. In one corner, Christmas cards were being decorated for family and friends. Just a few feet away, a fun game of Reindeer Ring Toss was in full swing. Staff even set up bowling lanes for residents to enjoy! Several residents hit the dance floor to cut a rug with their friends or favorite staff members. And everything was set against a barn-themed Christmas backdrop.

Whether they were tossing rings on Rudolph’s antlers or doing the two-step with their favorite staff, the residents had smiles bigger than the Christmas tree the entire time.

And there was still more fun to come. There were excited whispers about a rumored visit from a special guest in the afternoon. A jolly old soul in a red and white suit was coming!

After every ring toss, bowling pin clash, or change of song, you could hear, “Santa is coming this afternoon.” This was a special moment the staff had been planning for some time.

“The residents are so excited today,” said Wayne Austin, a Rehabilitation Instructor at SEAHDC. “Last year, because of COVID-19, they couldn’t do any of this. It was hard on the staff and it was hard on the residents. But days like today make it better, and it’s great to watch them have such a good time again.”

Wayne and the rest of the SEAHDC staff had more surprises in store for their residents. The festivities weren’t going to stop with the hoedown, and Santa wasn’t the only special guest coming.

To close out the Christmas Festival, SEAHDC staff hosted a parade for the residents. A classic antique fire truck drove up adorned in lights while residents and staff alike stood in awe of the Christmas magic in every detail of the parade.
And the whispered rumors were true – leading the parade was Santa himself. But Santa also had some special elves to help spread the Christmas spirit. First responders from the local community and Bucky the Deer from the Buck Fever Festival of the nearby town of Banks also joined the parade, much to the delight of the residents.

The Christmas Festival was a huge hit thanks to the selfless work by the SEAHDC staff. But residents weren’t the only ones getting a Christmas surprise this year. SEAHDC leadership held a Christmas feast for the staff this year. The special meal was a way to say thank you to the staff for all they have done this year and for their efforts to make Christmas magical and full of joy.

The Christmas feast included steaks, baked potatoes, green beans, salad, rolls, and cheesecake.

Simple things like Christmas cards and thank you lunches make all the difference to these staff members. They do all they can to provide wonderful care for the residents all year long, and they willingly sacrifice time with their own families around the holidays to make sure that their residents enjoy all the gifts of Christmas.

And the residents appreciate that effort. As much as they love getting special gifts this time of year, the residents find a lot of joy in the beauty and spirit of Christmas.

One resident, Jessie, said he loves opening presents. Even though he loves that part of Christmas, Jessie said his favorite holiday tradition is Christmas lights. He even helps set up the lights in his own residence every year.

Another resident, Julie, also loves the decorations. As we chatted about her favorite Christmas presents and memories, she kept coming back to all the decorations in the buildings and around the SEAHDC campus. She stared in awe at the trees and the lights and said, “They’re all so beautiful!”

Between the beauty of the lights, the warmth in the fires, and the sugar overload from too much hot chocolate, it’s hard not to fall under the magical spell of Christmas. From feasts to parades, SEAHDC made a big Christmas list and checked it twice. There isn’t a tree that’s not trimmed, a hall that isn’t decked, or a Christmas card not being hand decorated and delivered. Everyone at the SEAHDC makes sure that the spirit of Christmas doesn’t just visit the facility. They make sure it shines bright for every building, staff, and resident on campus.

This Christmas Day, the residents will enjoy presents with their friends and families and have a big Christmas meal. There will even be classic Christmas music and movies playing in the background thanks to the efforts of the SEAHDC staff. So, on behalf of the team in Warren and all the other Human Development Centers across the state, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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