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SHERIDAN — Not all Christmas gifts come wrapped in boxes tied with ribbon.
Not all families are bound by blood line.
And not all holidays are spent cozied up by the fire at home.
Sometimes, customers become family and the gift given is a calm voice during a frantic 911 call when an emergency shatters Christmas cheer.
As much as Christmas lore portrays a happy, shiny pause from the hectic for the day, the truth is that life doesn’t take a holiday.
The sick still need a doctor, parishioners need a priest, travelers need fuel, the vulnerable need protection and neighbors need a friend and a hot meal.
While working on Christmas may sound like drudgery, several Sheridan residents who will be donning uniforms and shifting their own traditions to accommodate a “day at the office,” say it’s really not.
They have learned to make their biggest gift on Christmas the gift of themselves — to people in need and to their families and friends in the precious time they do spend together, be it Dec. 25 or a day or two either side of it.
While Sheridan Memorial Hospital medical/surgical nurse Tori Milne is tucking blankets snugly around patients Christmas morning, her own four children, ages 10, 8, 5 and 2, will be throwing off their covers and running downstairs to see what presents lie beneath the tree, their smiles alight.
“This year, it’s sad I’ll be missing out on seeing their first expressions when they walk down the stairs,” Milne said. “But, they’re going to wait. My husband will be staying home with them, and we’ll have our own Christmas when I get home. It will be more exciting for my husband and I because our kids will look at the gifts all day long and dream and wonder.”
Working around the clock and around the calendar is part of the job for nurses, doctors and all the other staff it takes to keep a hospital running, Milne said. Her kids understand, and she delights in the camaraderie with fellow hospital staff and the extra comfort and care she can give hurting patients on a day they want to be anywhere but where they are.
“We make it a point, all of us who work with patients, to make them feel every day — but even more so on holidays — make them feel comfortable, included and appreciated,” Milne said.
Milne also said she and the other nurses will have a potluck and hopefully enjoy eating with each other, which doesn’t often happen.
“My co-workers are my family, too,” Milne said. “I’ll just be celebrating the holiday with my other family.”
And then, when she does go home, she and her husband and kids will celebrate with a little extra gusto to make the memory of mommy working on Christmas a special one that recognizes there are other people in the world who need her gifts, too.
In the next 24 hours, Father Louis Shea, who serves as associate pastor at Holy Name Catholic Church, will conduct four different masses — one lasting until 1:30 a.m. Christmas morning — for four different crowds of parishioners before going to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to fill a shift as chaplain on Christmas afternoon.
After he wraps up at the VA, Shea has plans to enjoy Christmas dinner with a church family — and four back-up offers, to boot — but he realizes that could be altered if he returns home and finds any voicemails from people in need of counseling or confession, as some are on a day that can be as intensely lonely for some as it is joyful for others, Shea said.
Shea will conduct his favorite service at children’s mass at 5:30 p.m. today. He said he loves the honest questions children ask, their joy and the chance to leave them with the reminder that though they may be small, they are not insignificant and are loved by Jesus.
Shea will co-lead midnight mass with head pastor Jim Heiser. It will feature Latin. He will also lead a Christmas Eve mass at Sheridan Manor at 2 p.m. today and a 10 a.m. mass at the church on Christmas. All that is added to conducting a major set of homilies over the weekend.
While this pivotal day in the Catholic faith is busy, Shea said it doesn’t necessarily feel like work. He said it is a privilege to lead parishioners into a closer relationship with the baby whose birth is celebrated Christmas Day.
“The reality is that it’s a joy saying mass,” Shea said.
The other stuff, the being on-call at all times, is a joy, too, because it is fellowship and helps him as much as it helps the parishioner in need.
“We don’t have to be in the office on Christmas, but somebody could call us at any point — sick or upset — and be like, ‘We hate to bother you at Christmas, but…’. And we’re here for that,” Shea said.
Checking meats, cheeses, veggies and cups off an inventory list and helping fuel customers may seem like the last thing someone would want to do on Christmas, but it’s not.
“Subway requires, corporate requires that we do inventory once a week; it’s always on a Wednesday. I’m sure corporate’s going to give everybody leeway this year, but I do it every Wednesday. It’s what I do every Wednesday, so why change?” Manager of The Rock Stop Tina Thompson said.
Originally, Thompson was only going to do inventory and keep the store and gas station closed. However, when she got to thinking about it, she figured she might as well open it all up if she’s there anyway. Several employees will also be on hand.
“People have to travel for lots of different reasons,” Thompson said. “Sometimes they’re good reasons, and sometimes they’re not good reasons, and sometimes it’s a matter of they have no choice.”
Thompson said her own family had to travel on Christmas day when they moved to Wyoming from Missouri. It was frustrating to them to find so many places closed when they were in need of a stop.
“It’s nice when you see something open that’s not normally open,” Thompson said, like the Dragon Wall Buffet, which is where Thompson and her family have enjoyed dinner on Christmas for nearly 10 years.
In a situation that’s often overlooked, Thompson actually doesn’t celebrate Christmas, a life choice that stems partially from spiritual studies that have included practices from the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Several of her employees who will be working Christmas day also don’t celebrate the holiday, so it’s a good chance for them to get extra hours while helping travelers who need fuel, a sandwich and a friendly face on a desolate road.
“I’ve heard good stories about Christmas, and I’ve heard horror stories about Christmas,” Thompson said. “I just want to be open to anybody who needs something. That’s the biggest thing.”
Sheridan Police Department Dispatcher Kim Madden has seen firsthand that life does not take a holiday just because it’s Christmas.
Madden has fielded 911 calls for a slough of medical and criminal emergencies every Christmas for the last 21 years she’s been with the department. She — along with all the other dispatchers and police officers — has been a voice of calm and reason when the unexpected crashes into the festivities of the day.
“Somebody has to be here 24/7, so somebody has to work it,” Madden said, noting that staff with families simply celebrate another day and that officers who are working Christmas can often sneak home for dinner, at least.
Dispatchers, on the other hand, must stay by their phones and computers for their entire 12-hour, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift.
“Hats off to the dispatchers who do work,” Sgt. Tom Ringley said. “We can get out and look at Christmas stuff, but they’re assigned here to dispatch. They do a good job everyday, but especially on Christmas. A shout-out to them, for sure.”
Madden said each Christmas varies.
“Unfortunately some of the calls can be a little different just because you get families together and alcohol involved. Other years, it can be very, very quiet, but we don’t like to use the word ‘quiet.’ It jinxes us,” Madden said.
While dispatchers must learn to remove themselves enough from the tough calls in order to do the job and stay with the job (the average “life expectancy” for dispatchers is only five years), the tough calls can hit harder on holidays like Christmas.
“If we were to have a suicide or a death over the holidays, yeah, it hits everybody harder because it is a holiday,” Madden said. “Even though we might not know the person in here, we’re thinking like, ‘OK now these kids’ memories, every Christmas is going to be their father died.’ We think along those lines and feel for the public what they’re going through.”
Madden said the biggest challenge for dispatchers is the lack of knowing the outcome of the calls they take.
“As a dispatcher we don’t get what they call closure. We take the 911 call from the very, very frantic woman whose child is not breathing, and we’re getting EMS going, we’re doing CPR over the phone, EMS gets there, we drop the call, and we have no idea what the outcome is,” Madden said. “You gotta do your job, number one, and then afterward if you need to step away and re-group, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. We do support each other.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom, Madden said. Members of the police department are a second family for each other, and they celebrate how and when they can. Officers sometimes wear Santa hats and make stops just to hand out candy canes to kids. And there’s always plenty of food.
“The public brings in treats; co-workers bring in treats. There’s always plenty of food to get fat on,” Madden said.
Gary Portnoy — whose song became the theme song for the hit TV show “Cheers” — knew what he was talking about. Sometimes people really do need to go where everybody knows their name.
In Sheridan on any day of the year, but especially on Christmas, many regular customers find that place of camaraderie and cheer at JB’s Restaurant on Coffeen Avenue, which has been open on the holiday for the last 10 years, Manager Jolly Rogers said. The restaurant typically serves more than 500 people on holidays, even with reduced hours.
Line Cook Roger Grow said it was hard at first to work on Christmas but that he has come to see it as a chance to give on a day meant for giving.
“It’s just another work day with a little more cheeriness around, I would say. It’s getting to spend the Christmas day with some co-workers and some family-like customers who come in all the time. We’ll eat well and have a good day,” Grow said. “I like working around people on Christmas day because it’s a giving holiday. We’re giving back to our customers who need a place to go.”
Server Marele Walker has worked several holidays in her nine years at JB’s and said customers are always appreciative of the food and something as simple as a smile and a “Merry Christmas!” from their server.
“Being open is giving back. You would not believe how many people have nowhere to go over the holiday. Mostly, you don’t think anybody’s out, and they are. They’re out there, and they’re hungry,” Walker said.
Walker and her family had the tables turned this last Thanksgiving when her dad was sick and in the hospital.
“There was only one place that was open, and thank God for them, because if they weren’t open we wouldn’t have even got to eat dinner. You never know who’s having a hardship,” Walker said.
Servers Megan Steigelman and Mariah Eby said they are looking forward to the holiday with their co-workers, who are like family. They plan on making the best of it and even hinted there may be some extra candy canes hiding in their apron pockets to hand out to people who need to know someone is glad they came.
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