By Caitlin O’Kane, CBS News
Santa Claus isn’t the only person who travels around with a vehicle full of toys. Every holiday season, Patricia Gallagher fills her car with stuffed animals and drives around Philadelphia. She doesn’t give them to kids, she gives them to seniors.
Gallagher told CBS News her Christmas tradition started in 2009. She was an empty nester and felt lonely. “I just got this idea in my head to call two nursing homes at random and ask if my mother and I could come and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,'” she said.
She brought some of her kids’ stuffed animals to the nursing home with her for the seniors to hold while she read. “But when we went to gather them and take them back to go to the next nursing home, nobody wanted to give up their teddy bear or their stuffed animal in any way,” she said.
That Dec. 1, Patricia saw the power of a simple Christmas gift. The room was drab, she said. “It was just a nursing home and it was just a lot of elderly people sitting in wheelchairs just kind of waiting and waiting for what?” she said. “And all of a sudden, the whole room became alive with people jingling bells and holding Santa Claus [dolls] and everything and they really didn’t want to give them back because they thought we had given them a gift.”
Patricia wanted to continue her tradition of giving, so she put an ad on Craigslist, asking for gently used stuffed animals. In her first two years of collecting, she received more than 11,000 donated stuffed animals. She said sometimes local schools will hold stuffed animal collections on her behalf, or a child who outgrew their toys will donate.
“I remember a boy named Jake who had a bar mitzvah project, and his mother asked if he could collect 100 [for me],” she said. “Well, he collected 413.”
“There was another synagogue that collected 800 for me – twice. There was a middle school in Flemington, New Jersey, that collected 800 or 900 for me, twice.”
“One mother in particular said her daughter passed away, she had all these stuffed animals … she had kept them all on her daughter’s bed for years, but when she saw my post on Craigslist, she felt it was her daughter saying, ‘Mom, it’s time to pass these along so others can enjoy them.”
After receiving a surplus, Gallagher started capping how many she’ll collect at one time, and says she’ll take in about 250 stuffed animals each week during the holiday season. Then, she takes them to senior living facilities and homes for veterans and retired nuns.
“Who would think that elderly veterans would want stuffed animals? But they did. Not only for comfort, but they were conversation starters. It reminded them of when they were a kid,” she said. “And I remember one man said, ‘You know, I never wanted to go to first grade and I wouldn’t go. And my father said if I would go to first grade that day, he would take me to the Brooklyn Zoo. And you know what? This was the first animal I saw at the Brooklyn Zoo and it looked just like this giraffe.'”
Spreading joy isn’t just a holiday pastime for Gallagher. She is also known as the “Happy Flower Lady” around Philadelphia, because she collects old flowers from stores and passes them out to anyone who needs a pick-me-up.
“I’ve always heard of the giver’s high – I didn’t know what that meant – but honestly, when you give, you really do get more back,” Gallagher said. “Every morning, whether it’s the flowers or the stuffed animals, I have a purpose.”
Even on Christmas Day, Gallagher said she will fill up her car and drive to a nursing home to hand them out. Because just like Santa, her job of spreading joy doesn’t stop on Christmas.