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Those who share the spirit of Christmas by helping others less fortunate usually find it changes their lives. Most get hooked, volunteers say.

One group, the Christmas Homebound Project, has brought Christmas meals since 1987 to homebound Utahns who might otherwise be forgotten."Homebound and shut-in people outnumber the homeless," said proj-ect coordinator Ted Knodel. "They live in isolation for the most part, have little or no family and friends, or are just alone, even on the holidays. They are less known than the homeless because they're not as visible."

Through referrals from neighbors, social services, students, or other shut-in people, project coordinators have been able to reach and touch the lives of thousands.

Last year alone, more than 2,500 people were treated to donated turkey dinners and handmade Christmas cards, either through visits to their homes or at Nector's Restaurant.

But the meal itself is sometimes just a foot in the door. Often relationships are established that go beyond the holidays.

"The meal is just an excuse for the volunteers to share themselves with someone who may be alone during Christmas," Knodel said. "Once the volunteers get that foot in the door, we want them to try to establish relationships with those people, to try to find out what they need."

Logistics coordinators Frank and Sue Borg say many people are initially afraid of volunteering. So volunteers are coached to be good listeners, and to ask gentle questions. When they overcome their fears or negative preconceptions about visiting someone old or ill, or living in an unkempt dwelling, the Borgs guarantee volunteers will experience emotions never to be forgotten, and will likely want to continue.

"It's definitely an emotional roller coaster," Frank Borg said. "I mean we hear about people who just have absolutely nothing, but until you've been with them you don't know how nuts your emotions can go."

Volunteers, especially children, also learn. Children at elementary schools have been involved in card-making campaigns. And once kids experience giving of themselves, they are the first to ask "what can I do next?" he said.

One group still in need of holiday cheer can be found at the Utah State Hospital and the Wasatch Mental Health Center in Utah County, where 40 mentally ill people won't find anything under the tree Christmas morning unless donors step forward to help them, a hospital spokeswoman says.

Janina Chilton said 260 patients at the two facilities are without families. An earlier plea brought gifts and donations for 220, but the rest still need help, she said.

"We've done really well this year but we're down to the wire now," she said. "The absolute deadline is Dec. 22."

People who want to help may obtain the name of a patient and buy gifts, make cash donations or send small items like socks, underclothing and grooming items to the hospital, Chilton said.

Most of the patients who need assistance are middle-aged men. A few women need gifts but sponsors have been found for all children.

"They can call us and we'll give them a gift list or we have volunteers who can shop for donors," Chilton said.