A local organization has kicked off a seasonal campaign that will provide nursing home residents who may be without friends or family this holiday season with Christmas gifts.

Project Compassion began accepting donations of warm clothing and comfort items at its annual Hearts of Gold open house held Tuesday at St. Luke Lutheran Church.

Marian Conrad, executive director of Project Compassion, described the occasion as a snapshot of their program. She said the holiday event is typically attended by Project Compassion staff, community volunteers, area students and nursing home residents.

Community members were invited to drop off donations of clothing and blankets at the kick-off event.

However, the organization will accept donations through Dec. 19, after which items will be packaged and delivered to area nursing home residents in time for Christmas. Conrad said volunteers try to process requests from area facilities and make deliveries in time for Christmas parties.

Items needed include sweatshirts and sweatpants, nightgowns, pajama sets, lounge pants, plain T-shirts, closed toe and heel house shoes, and blankets or lap throws. Dropoff locations include the Project Compassion Office, all Simmons Bank locations and the Hampton Inn in Van Buren.

Even though the Hearts of Gold Campaign is an important part of what Project Compassion does, Conrad indicated that nursing home residents need to feel valued all year, not just during the holidays.

“What we do is all year and around the clock, really,” Conrad said.

Conrad said their yearlong mission is to bring joy and companionship to nursing home residents who may have outlived friends and family and don’t have regular visitors.

More than 65 percent of nursing home residents do not have friends or family that visit, Conrad said. And while nursing homes provide a variety of activities and caregivers, Conrad said one-to-one interaction with the elderly is imperative.

“We make sure they feel valued and loved, like a viable part of society. They built our towns and communities and now they need companionship,” Conrad said.

Conrad said Project Compassion volunteers support programs already in place at local nursing homes. But often, they extend opportunities for residents by providing additional programs or activities.

Project Compassion provides programs from pet therapy and exercise opportunities to their “Grandfriends” program, which creates opportunities for seniors to interact with children in a variety of ways.

There is training provided for volunteers and background checks are completed on those wanting to give of their time. Project Compassion has about 300 core volunteers and an additional number of episodic volunteers whose participation may vary depending on time of year.

The organization’s volunteer base comes from a variety of places including churches, scouting organizations, Sunday school classes and local schools. Conrad said Albert Pike Elementary School works with Project Compassion through the Partners in Education program, and students often participate in programs with residents.

She added that some individuals volunteer because they have had a loved one in a nursing home and they recognize how much companionship is needed.

“They just want to come in and be that friend,” Conrad said.

Project Compassion, which was established in 1972, now serves 26 nursing homes in Arkansas and Oklahoma sharing their time and energy with as many as 2500 nursing home residents.