Mother's Day, Easter: Mental Health Patients To Receive Gifts Year-Round

By Karen Bliss 1/29/13 |

Musician Kathleen Edwards performed at the Gifts of Lights 2012 Xmas campaign launch.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) will soon launch a much needed, highly appreciated year-round gift-giving program through Gifts of Light.

Unlike other hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area, there is no gift shop at CAMH, even with the $200 million towards the entire reconstruction and redevelopment of the Queen Street West campus. Once the site of the 1850’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum, the isolated CAMH facility — later known by a series of names, including the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street West and Queen Street Mental Health Cenre — has now been thoroughly transformed and integrated into the ever-changing neighbourhood.

New streets, parks, businesses and residences are side-by-side with three new hospital buildings, co-locating youth and geriatric patients for the first time. The CAHM site, unveiled last June, has new gardens, a gymnasium, worship room, café and more. But no gift shop. It’s just not needed.

Patients there don’t get many visitors. Often family members distance themselves from loved ones receiving care, not knowing how to cope with mental illness.

It’s something many of us who don’t know anyone undergoing mental health care would even think about. We assume, like at other hospitals in the GTA, that one can pop in to an on-site shop to buy flowers or chocolate or a little nicknack to lift someone’s spirits or just as a sweet gesture. Who would think that the people there don’t get many visitors, if any — and that on their special occasions, no one acknowledges them with a gift?

An example from the Gifts of Light catalogue.
Observing this first-hand, for the past five years the CAMH Foundation’s Gifts of Light campaign has provided its patients with a wrapped gift at Christmastime through the select-a-gift donation program. Last month, volunteers delivered 1769 goodie bags ranging from scarves and hats to board games and puzzle books to approximately 500 inpatients and 1200 outpatients (seen at the Queen Street and College Street locations, as well as several clinics around the GTA). But starting this year the Foundation will extend the program year-round.

“Previously, we only gave out gifts during the winter holidays, but we will be looking to support patients with other initiatives, programs, even gifts, throughout the year,” CAMH’s Amy Wilkinson, manager, annual giving, tells Samaritanmag. “We are still working on what that will look like. Our next big push with be in late winter/early spring (March/April) with a push to have people buy Gifts of Light as a way to celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Easter.”

Ultimately, the Foundation might be able to acknowledge birthdays and other occasions with gifts, but for now, for logistical reasons, actual money raised through Gifts of Light will fund other initiatives, programs, and even gifts, throughout the year. The crux of the program, however, is physical gifts selected by the donor, but will be for mass occasions, nationally recognized holidays.

This past Christmas, Gifts of Light allowed people to buy gifts online, by phone and mail. Photos of the kinds of gift packages offered were displayed online, as well as in a printed booklet. There were “gifts of comfort” (ie. pyjamas and slippers, $50; hat, scarf and mittens, $35; shampoo, toothbrush and other necessities for outpatients, $25); “gifts of caring” (ie. a gift certificate for the patient-run Out of This World Café at the Queen Street location, $20; funding towards educational and training courses, textbooks and supplies, $90); and “gifts of joy” (ie. tools and supplies for gardening on the property, $25; funds towards on-site programs, such as yoga and obstacle course for Schizophrenia patients, $80). Various gift bundles were also available, including the “brightest gift of light,” where for $410 a patient would receive every single gift in the catalogue.

“The gifts are allocated to people that are long-time patients at CAMH,” CAMH president/CEO Catherine Zahn tells Samaritanmag. “We have regular contact with the staff in the different areas who have an understanding of where the need is around specific holidays and we distribute so everybody gets a special gift based on need.”

Many CAMH patients don’t live on the premises and are supported by community living or a setting where they require support. Most are on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and don’t have a lot of discretionary income. That’s why a gift that includes shampoo, soap and toothbrush is important; it enables them to save a bit of money on essentials.

A gift of essential toiletries enables out-patients to save a bit of money.
“Let’s face it, how good does that feel to have some nice citrus shampoo from time to time?” says Zahn. “It’s a wonderful luxury that we all enjoy. One of the things I was told when we were building our facilities is that one of the architects asked somebody, ‘What do people with mental illness like?’ And the answer was, ‘The same things you like — what are you talking about? These are human beings who like the same comforts and luxuries as you do.’ They’re functioning on a level where they’re trying to get by; what can we do to make life better [for them]?”

For the year-round Gifts of Light, the website — — contains information on the program, but the individual gifts aren’t up yet for the next one. “They will be refreshed in the coming months as we get ready for the spring push,” says Wilkinson. “That said, people can still donate to Gifts of Light with a general donation. Monies raised will continue to go towards supporting client programming here at CAMH.”

Mary Deacon, who was president of the Foundation for a decade and is now chair of the Bell Mental Health Initiative for Bell Canada, is the originator of Gifts of Light, along with Deane Hughes, then vice-president of community development at CAMH.

“I created the Foundation in 1999 and this project was really just a twinkle in the eye,” Deacon tells Samaritanmag. “What we really wanted to do was normalize mental health, to have people with mental health issues treated like people with any other health issue and to get obviously the support that they needed but the kindness and the humanity that so often the people with mental health issues aren’t afforded.

“And so this program, the Gifts of Light, was really just an idea to connect our donors with our patients in a way that was going to be meaningful for the patients because so often they are alone in the holiday season.

“This is the only hospital in the GTA that doesn’t have a gift shop. There’s a reason — because a lot of people still don’t get visited. It’s a very quiet place at Christmastime in a psychiatric hospital so this is really a way to let people know that somebody was thinking about them, somebody cared about them and wanted them to know that they were being thought of during the holiday season.”

The idea to expand Gifts of Light year-round was spearheaded by Toronto philanthropist Donna Slaight, once she was appointed to the board of the CAMH Foundation and became chair of Gifts of Light, who put together a committee and rallied the CAMH staff.

“Donna has helped reinvigorate the Gifts of Light program and with that a focus of her energies has been to help build awareness and momentum for the program so that it could become a year round initiative,” says Wilkinson. “She recognizes the need to support our patients not just over the holidays, but all year long.”

(L to R): CAMH Foundation president/CEO Darrell Louise Gregersen with board member Donna Slaight.
The Slaight family is known for its generosity to a wide-range of causes from cancer to education to music.

“Our children are 22 and 23 and so we had experiences with our friends and family having issues and realized how much is misunderstood, as an illness, and what stigma it has attached to it,” Slaight tells Samaritanmag. “As a family, we decided to donate to CAMH in the youth and adolescent program because we know there are a lot of lives that are really worth saving and early diagnoses is one of the things that allows people to have a normal life. You can handle it. Plus, when you’re diagnosed with mental illness, it’s not a quick fix; it’s a fix that takes quite a long time.

“When they came to us to donate to the hospital, one of the first things you think is [gasps] ‘I don’t want my name on a mental health,’ but then you go, ‘Why not? I’d be very proud,’” she continues.

“After we came here and we saw that this used to be the Lunatic Asylum — CAMH, this community here, you take a look around the perimeter, that’s the original wall of the Lunatic Asylum. So also, before they remodeled, you could still see bars on the windows, looking much like a prison. So those are totally inaccessible and here [the brand new facility] we’re part of a community.

“And also when I joined the Board and found, ‘Why is there no gift shop? Why would they not get a get-well balloon?’ [I was told] they’ve worn out their family and friends a lot of times. But, you know what, every year gets better.” And the year-round Gifts of Light will surely help. 



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