Holocaust survivor Frieda Kohl, now 82 and living in the Bronx, had faith that her sister was still alive. After years of searching, her hope was fading. That is, until administrators at the Tremont Senior Center located her sister in Sweden, and reunited the two women. This reconciliation was part of a special holiday initiative called Christmas Calls, created by Merrill Lynch in 1980 and held every year since.
From Toronto to Australia and Miami to London, seniors have reconnected with loved ones around the world after years of separation. In December 2000, more than 23,000 low-income seniors were invited into over 130 Merrill Lynch offices to phone their relatives and friends free of charge. Merrill Lynch employees and their families, and special guests including local Mayors and government officials greeted the seniors. Volunteers offered companionship, friendship and a delicious lunch, and coordinated the calls by wading through international directories, dialing the phones, mediating with operators, and offering general guidance and support.
What began as a single idea by a Merrill Lynch employee to put idle phones to good use during the holidays is now a global, grassroots effort by thousands of employees and their families each year. Christmas Calls reinforce two of Merrill Lynch’s guiding principles – Responsible Citizenship and Respect for the Individual–and serves the unmet needs of local communities where Merrill Lynch employees live and work.
The program works through partnerships with senior centers, churches, synagogues, and temples. Because not all seniors are physically capable of traveling to Merrill Lynch offices, the company also conducts an outreach effort in November and December (held four different days this past year) in which employees visited seniors bringing cell phones to connect seniors with relatives. Volunteers and seniors in many locations also enjoyed dancing, and singing at the Christmas Calls outreach parties. For those seniors who are homebound, the company coordinates conference calls.
For seniors who have reunited with estranged relatives and friends, Christmas Calls is a vital link to their past, their identity, and their future. Every year, thousands of people are revitalized in this healing, cross-generational community event, in which participants inspire one another with their remarkable stories, generosity and optimism.