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For Ms. Christmas, it’s all about the giving

Paula Maki displays a pillow she is sewing from African batik fabric that was donated. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com 1 / 2
Of course a Ms. Christmas poster looks like a Christmas tree! Here Maki explains how her Giving Trees work. 2 / 2

Paula Maki has earned the moniker of Ms. Christmas, not because that’s the name of her non-profit organization, but rather because she is singularly focused on spreading Christmas cheer. And just like Santa Claus and his elves, it’s a year-round job for Maki.

One room in her assisted living apartment is filling up fast with donations that have yet to be wrapped. Fabric squares covered with brightly colored batik animals sit next to a sewing machine in another room, waiting for Maki to make them into pillows, Christmas presents to brighten up any home.

The day after Thanksgiving, Maki is expecting a shipment of $10,000 worth of Dr. Comfort Shoes, a therapeutic footwear line designed for diabetics but which can be used by anyone. At a cost of $139 to $167 per shoe, they’re not cheap.

The story of how she got the large donation is classic Ms. Christmas.

“I just called the number on the back of the flyer and I talked to the head of the company, which is based in Wisconsin. This guy, Brian Lane, thought my cause was amazing.”

That cause? To bring Christmas gifts to adults living in foster homes, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. To make this happen, Maki reaches out to anyone who will listen, whether it’s a business, Gov. Mark Dayton or the local newspaper. In addition, each November she puts up “giving trees” around the Northland, each decorated with tags containing an idea for a gift a person can bring back (unwrapped) to the dropbox by the tree to make someone’s Christmas wish come true.

Maki wraps thousands of presents each year to take to her target group. She’s already delivered gifts to one local nursing home, an assisted living facility and the Outreach Center in Cloquet (which she helped start), and has plans to take gifts to hundreds more people living in adult foster care, nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

That’s because she knows those can be lonely places. She’s been there.

“Life in homes is very lonely, for all the residents see are the people who work there and the others who live there,” she said. “Very seldom do others visit. They are isolated!”

Maki, a Cloquet native and graduate of Cloquet High School, contracted Lyme disease before medical science knew much about it. The undiagnosed disease caused extensive changes in the white matter of her brain. That's essentially what chronic Lyme disease does if left untreated, often resulting in neurological disorders such as peripheral neuropathy.

The illness Maki 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 the assisted living apartment where she currently resides. Her list of ailments is extensive, including neuropathy, bladder issues and chronic bronchitis. She has issues with her joints, which she says are basically falling apart. She wears braces on her hands and legs. She is mildly autistic and has myriad problems relating to having chronic Lyme disease for so long.

Maki just shrugs off her disabilities and keeps plugging along.

“I have lots of disabilities, but I still have this drive to go. Some days it’s painful and it hurts. You might think I’d give up but I just keep going, like the Energizer bunny!” she says and laughs. “Oh my goodness.”

Pastor Jeff Walther of St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Esko calls Maki “a person on a mission.”

“I think all her experiences of growing up in a foster home have developed an

appreciation and zeal inside of her of making sure others with disabilities or who are in nursing homes get the opportunity of having a Christmas, that they’re loved or cared for in some way,” said Walther, whose congregation often volunteers to help Maki pick up donations or dispense gifts, whatever she needs.

Walther talks about being at Sunnyside Health Care Center in Cloquet when Maki was handing out gifts last year.

“You are so alive, with a passion and excitement … it’s just exciting to see you pass out gifts to the residents,” he told her earlier this month. “When I see you give the gifts, to see the smiles on their faces, the joy at having received a gift, which is a gift of love, that’s what it’s all about for you.”

In 2013, before she started her charity, Maki served 100 people Christmas dinner and presented them with gifts at her home. In 2014, Maki served more than 500 people at two area nursing homes and many adult foster homes over the holidays, including another large dinner at her apartment in Cloquet.

In 2015, she set her sights on serving residents of all 17 assisted living facilities in the area, 45 adult foster homes and three nursing homes. This year she says she wants to donate to 2,000 adult assisted-living residents in Minnesota.

She is well on her way.

By the start of November, more than 60 different people, businesses and organizations had donated to her Ms. Christmas cause with items ranging from gift cards to an autographed Vikings photo to a new Wii game. Hobby Lobby, Fitger’s Hotel, Shopko, L&M, Duluth Coffee Company, Happy Space, Snow Goose and many more names are scrawled out in cursive handwriting.

On top of her Christmas gift giving, Maki has a new goal. She wants to create a completely handicapped accessible home for sick, disabled, low-income individuals in the community, where they will have access to needed support services, along with a hot tub and sauna to help them battle their chronic illnesses. She has thought a lot about how her home would be different, and she knows there is a need. She’s also done research, which she has compiled into an informational packet that she is mailing out to people she thinks might be able to help her, including the governor.

Maki said her faith is an important part of what she’s doing with the Ms. Christmas charity.

I have a lot of faith in God, and I think God is helping me accomplish the amazing things I do,” Maki said. “Because, like I wrote in my paper, I’ve experienced a lot of miracles in my life. It’s a miracle that I am the way I am now.”

Those who would like to help can find Giving Trees outside Zoe’s Boutique in Cloquet and in Duluth on the second floor of the Holiday Center, along with the Shopko stores in Hermantown and Moose Lake. Questions? Contact Maki by email at Ms.Christmas.Charity@aol.com, phone at 218-590-9109 or visit her website at http://mschristmascharity.wixsite.com/disabledadults/the-proje

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