Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Retired school teacher Vivian Hansten is a giver by nature.

She doesn't know any other way.

"Isn't that what we're supposed to do?" she said when asked about her volunteer efforts. "It just seems normal to me."

Hansten, 73, of Sonora, has her feet firmly planted in organizations and activities on both sides of the Stanislaus River that have an impact all across the world.

A career middle school teacher in Riverbank, she is particularly focused on children.

"Kids have always been a priority for me," Hansten said. "I got a baby brother when I was 10 years old. I was crazy about taking care of my baby brother. I guess that's what started me. My parents would tease me about how they should get a turn with him, too."

She retired in 2001 to Sonora to be closer to her grandchildren. She almost immediately launched into her involvement with Operation Christmas Child, a faith-based international program to bring shoeboxes filled with toys, school supplies and hygiene items to children in impoverished countries.

Hansten never heard of it until her daughter-in-law casually mentioned what she planned to do with shoeboxes left over from an all-family shopping trip.

"I thought it was pretty impressive what a simple shoebox would do for a kid," she said.

She jumped in with both feet, and Patt Hopper, Operation Christmas Child area coordinator for the Central Sierra region of Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties, said she couldn't be more grateful to have her as a team member.

"I don't know where I would be without her. She is just the most caring person I've met in a long time," Hopper said. "She shares whatever she has … whenever a door opens, she always steps up and steps through. She's just a nonstop go-getter."

Hansten also worked for the food pantry at the Red Church in Sonora but joined Faith Lutheran Church in Murphys following a rift in the St. James congregation.

On her first visit to Faith, "someone stood up and made an announcement (about Operation Christmas Child) and another about orphanages in the Ukraine," she said. "I thought 'OK, I'm in.' "

Hansten had already begun to knit quilts, scarves, blankets, hats and stuffed toys with a group called Sierra Stitchers in support of fellow Stitcher and Mi-Wuk Village resident Lynette Eads' visits to deliver aid to Ukrainian orphans through a nongovernmental organization called Universal Aid for Children.

"(Ukraine) is at the same latitude as Minnesota and Ontario and it's at the middle of the continent. It gets very cold. They don't always have heat (in the orphanages). They turn it off at night," Hansten said. "At about age 16, (children) have outgrown the orphanage … they don't have any family, they don't have any support group and that breaks my heart."

Hansten is in her fourth year on the Calaveras County chapter board for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a faith-based, not-for-profit financial services organization that distributes thousands of dollars annually to local charitable endeavors such as the Resource Connection food bank.

Her SUV's license plate frame also displays her recently-earned title of "10 Gallon Donor" to the Delta Blood Bank through its Sonora location.

Her husband, Ken Hansten, received numerous blood transfusions battling a rare form of bone marrow cancer that claimed his life in 1988. She said his treatment inspired her to give.

"I just watched him come back to life with one pint sometimes," she recalled. "I thought I've got to do that. I don't have to die and be an organ donor. I can donate blood. That's easy."

Hansten said her husband's memory survives through her and their sons Greg and Jeff Hansten, daughter Denise Philipp and their seven grandchildren.