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Christmas program lifts spirits

November 16, 2011
Christmas is a special time. And the generosity people show during that time of year is always something to behold. But there are a few who often fall through the cracks, forgotten, not because people don't care, but because they just don't think about them.

Ellen Myers, who owns an insurance company in English, has made Christmas special for a "special" person for years. She doesn't really know the person, just that the person is a woman, about 65 years old and loves make-up and pink clothing and that she's a patient at Evansville State Hospital.

The hospital has an annual Christmas Gift Lift program that has been in place for more than 40 years that makes it possible for people to help someone who may not be remembered during that special time of the year.

Myers has helped the same person for a number of years and knew her by a number that is assigned to each patient due to confidentiality issues.

"But when I send a gift, she always responds with a thank-you card," Myers said. "And through the years, she often signed her real name on the card, so I know her first name now but not her last name. And that's just fine."

Sometimes known as the "forgotten people," some of the residents of the hospital have relatives or friends on the outside, but even those are usually separated from their loved ones during the holidays. Some have no family or contact with others outside the facility.

"Back in the 1960s, a program sponsored by the Mental Health Association placed boxes in stores all over the state and collected gifts for the holidays," said Theresa Arvin, community services director at Evansville State Hospital, "but we wanted to personalize our program. We got patient input and put together a list of items that appeals to them, things that they can use here to make their days a little better."

Arvin said the list includes sleepwear, magazine subscriptions, puzzles, small fitness radios with earphones, sweatshirts and especially small radio alarm clocks.

"And one of the greatest gifts is pre-paid phone cards," Arvin added. "Some patients have no money, so these are important. And they also enjoy regular gift cards for restaurants, which they can use when they leave the facility on field trips. They also need simple things like shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and even underwear."

Sometimes the patients will request special gifts. Myers had one who was an Elvis fan. On a trip to Tennessee, Myers was able to find Elvis calendars, pictures and other memorabilia and stocked up for the coming holiday season. Some may like NASCAR items, and some just want warm pajamas and houseshoes.

"We have more males here than females," Arvin said. "Right now, we have 50 females and 127 men, and they range in age from 18 through 60 and even older. The average age of our residents is around 40 to 42."

Anyone wishing to "adopt" a patient can contact Arvin, who will send them a list of gift suggestions and also a list of gift guidelines, which outlines what gifts are acceptable and what ones aren't allowed.

For instance, many patients are diabetic or have dietary restrictions, so food items and candy are not recommended. Alcohol-based items, like colognes or aftershaves, are not acceptable, and glass, or sharp, breakable items, and items with staples or spiral wiring are also not advised.

But the list of items on the suggestion list are numerous and include watches, Velcro wallets, calendars, posters, books and journals, clothes, card games, personal care products, cosmetics, deodorant, body wash, lip balm, stationary and postage stamps.

Arvin suggested sponsors should spend less than $50 on a patient, and said if a person is unable to sponsor a patient, monetary donations are accepted.

"We have several 'elves' that will be shopping for the patients," she said. "And monetary donations also help for our new admissions who come in too late to be on our sponsor lists."

The hospital also has a "Friend to Friend" program that people can sign up for, pledging to visit their patient at least once a month.

"Christmas gifts can be sent to the hospital," Myers said. "Or, they can be dropped off here and I'll see to it that they are delivered to the hospital by the Dec. 9 deadline."

Myers' office is located at 517 S. Main St. in English.

To receive a list and a patient assignment, contact Theresa Arvin at 1-812-469-6800, ext. 4970 or by e-mail at theresa.arvin@fssa.in.gov.

"The patients are always grateful for their gifts," Arvin said. "And they acknowledge it with a card of thanks."

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