Down and out on Christmas 26 years ago, a woman vowed to help others, if she were sober a year later.

“My whole life was upside down,” said a Buxton woman, who chooses to remain anonymous.

A recovered alcoholic, the woman broke down and cried while telling her story Monday. In 1979, she found herself “all alone on Christmas” after divorcing her husband and losing her family.

“I was distraught at Christmas,” she said. “I was a hop, skip and jump from being a bag lady.”

She sought solace and a place to go on Christmas. She stopped by Serenity House, a drug and alcohol rehab center for men in Portland. One of the patients there asked her if she wanted a cigarette. He went out and bought a pack.

“Merry Christmas,” he said handing the pack to her. “If I had the money, I’d have bought you a box of chocolates,” the patient said.

He was the only one who wished her a merry Christmas that year. She hadn’t seen him before and hasn’t seen him since, but she was touched by his generosity.

“I was too insecure to ask for anything,” she said. “Because of my embarrassment and shame, I couldn’t ask.”

That Christmas, she had nothing to give anybody. But a year later, she had a job with a meager income. That’s when she started what would become an annual mission. She has returned every year, taking a bag of Christmas gifts to each patient in Serenity House.

“I’ve been sober since 1979,” the woman, now 58, said.

The staff at Serenity House, a half way house, takes up a collection to help her, but she pays for most of the gifts. This year, she’ll wrap gifts for 33 men. The woman begins shopping for the Christmas gifts in January. She buys about everything they need – socks, sweatshirts, hats, gloves, sewing kits, towels, shoe polish, soap, shampoo, tooth paste, razors, laundry bags, first aid kits, and pencils. “Anything I can buy on my allowance, I buy,” she said.

Each patient gets 50 to 70 gifts. “Everyone gets a big bag,” she said

Remaining anonymous and seeking no credit for her giving, the woman identifies herself only as “Sandy Claus.” “Someone gave to me,” she said. “That’s what this is all about.”

There’s even CDs in the bags. “North pole music,” Sandy Claus laughed.

Sandy Claus realizes how important the Christmas gifts are to the patients. “They don’t have much of anything,” she said. “They’re very hurting people.”

Marilyn Twitchell, administrative director at Serenity House, said that patients arrive without hats, mittens or coats. “They come in with nothing, they’ve lost everything,” Twitchell said, calling the effort of Sandy Clause phenomenal. “It brings home the spirit of Christmas. She has a heart of gold.”

In a red folder, Sandy Claus tucks a message entitled “Love” in the bag for each patient. “I may be able to speak the languages of men and angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or clanking bell,” the first line read.

Sandy Claus suffered a stroke 20 years ago, the only Christmas she missed at Serenity House. But the patients still had a Christmas, she said.

At one time, members of the Camel Club lent a hand. Former patients at Serenity House formed the club. “It means you can go a 1,000 miles without a drink,” she said.

Suffering from diabetes and a thyroid disorder, Sandy Claus wasn’t well enough this year to tackle the task of wrapping gifts alone. She asked the Pythian Sisters of Buxton for a hand.

Gifts, wrapping paper, Christmas bags and ribbons were stacked on tables, lining a wall inside the headquarters of the Pythian Sisters in Buxton Center.

Setting up an assembly line, Linda Clark, Carol Moore, Joann Groder, Ellen Emery, Geneann Mayo and Natalie Marshall wrapped gifts. “It’s like a Santa’s little workshop,” Sandy Claus said.

She praised Serenity House. “It’s a fantastic place. It’s helped so many people,” she said.

Sandy Claus declined to reveal much more about her personal life and details of her struggles. She did say she has four “beautiful” kids and 11 grandchildren, all boys except for one. Sandy Claus, who has lived in Buxton seven years, still goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

She first got help in her battle against alcoholism at Seton Hospital in Waterville. She checked in for a 30-day rehab program but stayed 35 days. “I was afraid to leave,” she said.

Now, she steps out on faith helping others to have a merry Christmas. She calls herself poor. “I have pennies, but it’s more than many people have,” she said.

“I’m not a woman of means,” she said. “I prayed to God to help me do this.”

(BUX Christmas hands 1) – The caring hands of a Buxton woman wraps gifts Monday. She has been giving patients at Serenity House in Portland a Christmas for 26 years. Declining to reveal her real identity, she described herself only as Sandy Clause.Sending a Christmas message of love.

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