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Jeanne Layendecker holds a photo of her late sister, Terri Hinton, who yearned to make the holidays brighter for people in need. Jeanne and daughter Katie and other family members are doing just that as Team Terri. These gifts were collected for the Salvation Army's Adopt-A-Family program. 

Yes, Omaha, there is a Santa Claus. We can catch glimpses of him all around us, winking in the reflections of those who revel in committing brazen acts of kindness this time of year. Jeanne Layendecker is one of them, inspired and empowered by another cheerful giver, her big sister, Terri Hinton.

“Terri and I started this about 18 years ago. She thought we needed to give back,” Layendecker says. “I just happened to be listening to the radio and heard about it.”

‘It’ was the Salvation Army’s Adopt-a-Family program — and it quickly became a passion for the sisters, something they looked forward to doing together every year.

“The situations are just so touching,” says Layendecker, a mother of three who works in the financial aid office at Metropolitan Community College. “I love being able to go and talk with the families.”

Sponsors deliver presents, grocery cards and, in many cases, the true gift of their time and company. They leave with indelible memories — like those from the sisters’ visit to a single mom and her two children in a small, two-bedroom apartment.

“There was this teeny-tiny tree, no presents beneath it. But there was a picture of a little girl with candles all around it. The mom just opened up to us and said, ‘This is my other daughter — 2 years old. She died on Mother’s Day.’ She let us into her home and into her heart. She was so grateful, so welcoming.”

Afterward, Layendecker and her sister stood in the apartment parking lot and cried.

“Terri said, ‘I wish we could do more. I wish we could help more families.’”

That’s exactly what Layendecker continued doing with her big sister — and more recently, without her. In September 2018, Hinton died from a sudden illness.

“She was so amazing,” Layendecker says. “I struggled a lot.”

Then it dawned on her that Adopt-A-Family was coming up. “I felt like I had a purpose again. I felt like she was right there with me. I thought I needed to do more for more people because that’s what she wanted to do.”

Layendecker got to work and rallied Team Terri, a group of family and friends, including her 89-year-old father; Terri’s husband, Keith Hinton; all of their kids; even Layendecker’s hairdresser. Team Terri adopted seven families in 2018 and 10 families this year. The goal is 20 in 2020.

“We decided we’re going to make this our mission because nobody should go without a Christmas,” Layendecker says.

That’s the overriding goal. Since its inception in 2000, the Salvation Army’s Adopt-A-Family program has assisted 39,000 families and seniors. Each year, The Star 104.5 Adopt-A-Family Radiothon for the Salvation Army helps match community members and agencies with those in need. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska is among the companies whose employees have been adopting for all of the last 19 years.

“Adopt-A-Family is a wonderful example of grassroots philanthropy at its finest,” says Jeff Beckman, executive director of development for The Salvation Army Western Division. “The community is engaged with serving some 2,000 families this year via this unique program, ensuring that those in need do not go without this Christmas. We want to thank all the donors who adopted families and Star 104.5 for responding in a time of need.”

Layendecker has lost count of how many people, combined, that she and Terri and now Team Terri have impacted. But she knows for sure that each person has impacted her.

“It takes my breath away,” she says. “If you don’t think you can make a difference, think again. You can.”

“Faces of Fearless” is a storytelling series from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, celebrating people living their best lives and inspiring others to do the same.

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