In 1963, Gloria Spanier’s brother and his wife, both Army medical corps members, were sent to Vietnam.
“I was a basket case,” she said. “I made a promise to God - and to the Army, to the Vietnamese, to everybody I could think of - that if they returned alive, I would be a do-gooder for 20 years.”
They did return alive. And being do-gooders, for Spanier and her husband, Evan, has meant spending 18 percent to 20 percent of their combined income each year for gifts for thousands of needy and elderly people.
This year, 10,000 gifts were given by Gloria Spanier, director of human resources and administration for Acurex, a Mountain View, Calif., environmental research firm, and Evan Spanier, vice president of engineering for Voelker Technology in Danville, Calif.
Gifts such as the 175 packs that went out last week to clients of John XXIII Multiservice Center in San Jose, each pack containing candy and items for kitchen, bath and personal use. Or gifts such as packages for 75 residents and staff members at CityTeam Ministries Rescue Mission on Old Bayshore Highway, each containing a dozen items such as stocking cap, set of writing tablets with pencils, shampoo and socks.
“It makes Christmas become Christmas for them,” said chaplain Sharon Vaughn, one of the staff members who distribute gifts Spanier takes to CityTeam’s alcohol and drug abuse recovery building.
“It’s an abundance, a variety of stuff she brings in, like washed clothes, tea bags and hot chocolate packs stuffed into coffee cups. The thought that went into it all is what’s impressive.”
When Spanier, of Willow Glen, Calif., arrives each Christmas and Easter, the men in the recovery building are waiting because they know who she is, Vaughn said.
“When she passes out the packages, there’s a lot of laughter, joking, jubilance. It’s a heartwarming thing. There’s a lot of gratitude, but it’s fun, too. They’re like little kids. There’s a lot of curiosity to see what’s in the packages.
“I’ve seen the guys in recovery, if they can’t use one of the gifts or if it’s the wrong size, walk over to the Rescue Mission and give it to a homeless person there.”
Spanier gives the Mountain View Community Center food throughout the year and presents for Easter, Mother’s and Father’s days, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, even the Fourth of July - “whatever I can get together in red, white and blue,” Spanier said.
Spanier starts buying at the beginning of each year, going to flea markets and garage sales, “looking for deals,” she said. “If I go to a garage sale and buy the whole lot for $100, then I sort through that for my regular charities and give what’s left to the Salvation Army and Goodwill.”
Besides her gift-giving efforts, Spanier estimates she spends 1,000 hours a year on charity work “and friends and neighbors and other people who help me put in another 3,000 hours.
“I have a core of about a dozen regulars, and they and maybe 10 others show up for work sessions like wrapping parties. They have to meet standards. They have to wrap each gift as carefully as if it were going under their own tree.”
The original 20-year commitment Spanier made during the Vietnam War has long passed, but not her generosity.
“My parents wanted my brother to be a minister and me to be a missionary,” Spanier said. “We definitely had a Christian upbringing.
“So when the 20 years expired, I said to Evan, ‘We can’t quit now.’ So we renewed for five year extensions - three times. Now, as we get older, finding time for the work gets harder, and so does parting with the income.”
“We’re not doing this for publicity,” she added, ” but I don’t mind publicity because it shows people that if we can do all this, others can do just a small part of it too. If we all did it, we could work miracles.”