‘Ms. Christmas’ brings holiday cheer to others
Paula Maki decorated her apartment for Christmas this year on Halloween. She began gathering pinecones at area parks to make wreaths and Santa Clauses, and even her cat, Jacque Cousteau, donned a Christmas collar and Santa hat. And as this long-time Cloquet resident reveled in the anticipation of the season, she had a marvelous inspiration — why not share some of that joy with others?
“I wanted to do something special for the adult residents in foster homes,” she explained. “The thing is, life in adult foster homes is extremely lonely. I know for a fact because I used to live in one. All the residents see are the ones they live and work with, and occasionally family members. When they do get out, it’s with the same staff, and they don’t get much chance to interact with everyday people.”
For the past couple of years, Maki has contacted the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and was successful in obtaining a block of donated tickets to the “Disney on Ice” performances in order to treat adult foster care residents to a night out. But she was only able to reach out to a limited number of them.
And so, this year Maki decided to plan a Christmas party at her apartment on Carlton Avenue in Cloquet that would include both her friends and family and clients from 10 adult foster homes from Carlton, Cloquet and Duluth.
Maki comes by her party planning skills naturally. She said her mother, who passed away in 2011, liked to have parties, too.
“And I love to decorate!” she added with enthusiasm.
The labor of love went far beyond simply decorating, however. Maki decided she wanted to present gifts to everyone who was invited to the party, no matter whether they were able to attend or not, so she set to work making gifts for friends and family and going around to area businesses to solicit their support.
Her handmade gifts included pine cone wreaths, vases decorated with shells or decoupage, her own original artwork and many more of the crafts she loves to create. For the foster home clients, she was successful in getting gift certificates and/or merchandise from many area businesses.
A candy store gave her an entire bag of chocolate frosted pretzels, enough for her to give to everyone at the party. A men’s clothing store, whose manager she went to school with, donated over $150 worth of socks and deerskin leather gloves. Some 38 additional businesses in Cloquet, Duluth and surrounding areas also opened their hearts and contributed.
“Pretty much all the stores on my list were generous!” she said. “I had such a wonderful time shopping for many of them myself. I had to think really hard about what I should get each person. I know each of them, and it was so much fun to get gifts for them.”
Since she had invited residents of 10 foster homes with four to five in each, and she put together 45 gifts, some of which she handed out at the party and others that she’s still delivering to those who were unable to attend.
“I put in lots of late nights getting ready for it,” she admitted. “It was a lot of fun, though, and so rewarding.”
Maki did all the food preparation for the party herself, making up trays of hors d’oeuvres and baking five cakes with the help of her niece and a friend.
The party, which was held last Saturday afternoon, was a great success, despite snowy weather and giant drifts all around Maki’s apartment building. Guests visited and mingled for a couple of hours, enjoying Maki’s festive decorations, food and the holiday ambiance she so artfully created for them. And when the gifts were distributed by her boyfriend, Allen Wood, who played Santa Claus, it was like frosting on the cake for the guests.
“One of them, named Mike, was so excited to get an I Spy wand and a pair of pajama bottoms,” related Maki. “Oh gosh, it was so exciting! Some of these people are like children, and those sorts of things mean so much to them. I gave a whole pile of books and CDs from Jesus Is Life Book Store for one of the girls from Pinewood. Another person at Pinewood is getting a night’s stay at the Sheraton, where they have a pool. He lives in a foster home, but he sees his parents a lot so they will be able to go with him.”
Through it all, Maki was living vicariously because she knows how much an event like this means to disabled adults in foster homes, whose world is often limited to the same things they see and experience every day. It’s a world with which she is intimately familiar.
Maki was born and grew up in Cloquet. Her mom was a native of the community and her dad emigrated from Finland. She has two sisters, one who now lives in Proctor and another sister in Wrenshall. She went to Cloquet High School and graduated in 1984. She then went on to two years of technical college in the Twin Cities to study art and photography, working full time as a nursing assistant at a nursing home.
After school, she started having medical issues related to what was much later diagnosed as Lyme disease.
“They didn’t know anything about Lyme back then,” she said. “It wasn’t until the 1990s that anyone had ever heard of it.”
The undiagnosed disease caused extensive changes in the white matter in her brain, which is essentially what chronic Lyme disease causes, often resulting in neurological disorders such as peripheral neuropathy if the disease is left untreated.
In the meantime, Maki married and had a son, but her marriage ended in divorce. She moved back to Cloquet, living with her mom and dad for a time before moving into an apartment at Aspen Arms and later her own home. She worked at McDonalds Restaurant as a crew trainer until she got sick once again in 2008 and had to leave her job. The illness she suffered cycled on and off, at times so critical she could barely function, and she ultimately went to live in a foster home for six years.
After that, she moved around some and ended up in an assisted living apartment last April where she currently lives today.
“Because I’m sick a lot, I now have a hard time working much outside my home,” she said. “I do work once every other week helping to clean the hotel at Black Bear, and to make up for my lack of income I sell things I make.”
Maki is frank about her challenges, attesting that they have been difficult but that they have given her an uncanny insight into her own mortality.
“I have looked death in the eye,” she said.
One night, during one of her times of deepest illness and depression, she said she saw God in her dreams.
“I was very ill and I had a hard time making sense of things,” she related. “I was crying my eyes out at 11 o’clock at night and I had a handful of pills I was about to take. But God was looking over me that night because my friend who lived next door called me right at the moment I was about to the handful of pills. She talked me into calling my parents. They called 911 and I was saved. God told her to call me — there’s no other explanation for that, because she knows I go to bed early and she just never called me at that time. That was a miracle.”
Maki’s Christmas party last Saturday was as much a celebration for her as it was for her friends, and it gave her yet another inspiration.
“It was huge,” she said. “After this holiday, I hope to form a non-profit and call myself, ‘Ms. Christmas for Adults with Disabilities in Foster Homes’ and apply for grant funding. The plan is to have a much bigger party next year at the Cloquet Armory and invite all 44 foster homes in Carlton County, as well as Carlton and Cloquet nursing home residents.”
Maki said she would like to have a two-shift party, offering either lunch or dinner, because it would involve some 500 people — too many to fit into the Armory all at once. She is already forming a committee and has invited a woman from the Twin Cities who does grant applications to come up and help her get started.
“Maybe next year — I don’t know yet, but miracles happen and I do believe in miracles — this bigger party will happen,” she said. “A lot of people said I gave a very good party this year. The residents of the homes were so excited. I know I made a difference in their lives.
“I know I have a long life ahead yet,” she continued, “but sometimes it can be very unbearable. I’ve come through lots of challenges in my life, but I love being ‘Ms. Christmas!’”