Local Mental Health America initiative provides gifts to clients, caregivers

The third floor of the Community Agency Building in downtown Seymour has been bustling.

The UPS delivery person has been a frequent visitor delivering packages containing items for Mental Health America of Jackson County’s Christmas Gift Lift, and staff and volunteers involved in the nonprofit organization have stayed busy organizing all of the items and placing them in navy and red canvas tote bags.

This week, it all culminated with caregivers and clients coming up the elevator to pick up their bags.

That’s when Executive Director Melanie O’Neal and Program Facilitator Donna Persinger were able to look back on all of the time and work put into the project and appreciate everyone who contributed.

“It’s going to take a lot of muscles to get all of the bags from the third floor loaded into vehicles, but it’s so worthwhile. It is just awesome,” O’Neal said earlier this week. “I have had clients calling me or Facebook messaging me saying, ‘Hey, when are we getting our Christmas gifts?’ ‘Hey, are you still making the Christmas bags this year?’ because they look forward to it. While it does take a lot of work by a lot of people, the reward is priceless.”

The clients deserve it, O’Neal said.

“We all enjoy Christmas, and some of our clients don’t have family members that either choose to not participate or their family members have passed away,” she said. “We have clients up in their 70s, and so our board believes it’s important that everyone feels included and just to celebrate Christmas, the meaning of Christmas.”

This year, 140 women and 110 men received gift bags. That’s up from 195 in 2020.

Mental Health America of Jackson County works to educate and promote awareness of all aspects of mental health to the residents of Jackson County and to support those families and individuals affected by a mental illness.

“As we’ve grown and we’re in the public eye more, I think we’ve become aware of more clients,” O’Neal said.

For the second year in a row, MHA received a grant from the Jennings County Community Foundation to provide gifts to five group homes in that neighboring county.

Each of the bags, which for the second year in a row were donated by the Jackson County Recycling District, was filled with personal hygiene items.

Plus, there were plush animals and blankets donated by Walmart Distribution Center in Seymour, fresh baked cookies from AVI Foodsystems, a gift card for pizza or Steak ‘n Shake, handmade Christmas cards and individually wrapped candy from two local 4-H groups and items donated by Dicksons Inc. in Seymour.

Normally, MHA’s last quarterly social of the year is the Christmas Gift Lift, where clients gather for a meal and receive gifts. The socials, however, haven’t happened since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020.

Last year and this year, the MHA board opted to keep the Gift Lift going by reaching out to the community for donations so gift bags can be delivered to clients at Christmastime.

“We miss our clients, and we want them to know that even though we can’t get together, we still care about them and we wish them a happy Christmas,” O’Neal said. “A lot of them have been stuck inside more than the rest of us just because of their immune systems, and the board thought that it was important to go ahead and continue with the program even though we couldn’t do it in person.”

Conversations started in August, preliminary meetings went into September and the Gift Lift committee then worked weekly to figure out what to order, put in the bags and ask people to buy.

“The Jackson Township trustee gives us every year a monetary donation, and that is extremely beneficial to help with planning purposes for the largest event that we have each year,” O’Neal said. “We’re built into that budget, so that is something that we can count on every year.”

O’Neal said sponsorship letters were sent to past Gift Lift donors, and three local companies — Lannett Co. Inc., Nippon Steel Pipe America Inc. and Cummins Inc. — also set up Angel Trees so employees could help with the effort.

People could buy the items and drop them off at the MHA office or buy online through an Amazon Wish List so the items could be shipped to the organization.

Also, Persinger led a fundraiser where she made holiday gift bags containing bows, cards and other items people use to wrap gifts. That took the place of a wreath fundraiser MHA had done in the past.

New to the effort this year were 111 group home caregivers receiving gifts and 22 group homes receiving special bags.

The caregivers received a mug including an MHA ink pen, a card and candy. Sam’s Club awarded a partial grant to help pay for the mugs, which were ordered from the store.

“It has just been a tough couple of years, especially for our caregivers with clients that couldn’t get out,” O’Neal said. “At times, the day programs were shut down, so we just felt like this year would be important to maybe lift their spirits a little bit, too.”

MHA received a large donation from Walmart Supercenter in Seymour for the group home bags, which included arts and crafts supplies.

“When the committee was purchasing items for the clients, they chose items that they could use some of those supplies on,” O’Neal said. “We’re going into winter months, and we wanted to be mindful to give them some arts and crafts things to do.”

With another successful Christmas Gift Lift behind them, O’Neal and Persinger said the program will continue as long as the board and community support continue.

“We’ve been very blessed with donations. Melanie calls me and says, ‘Are you ready for this one?’” Persinger said, smiling.

“It’s unbelievable. It really is,” O’Neal said of the community support. “This is a huge project. We work on it for weeks, and the month of December by far is the busiest month of the year. It truly does take community to make this work.”