Mental hospital patients not forgotten during the Christmas season

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    By Sunny Layne

    Instead of feeling the bitter chill of loneliness this Christmas, hundreds of patients battling mental illness at Utah”s State Hospital will receive something many of them have never had before: a personalized Christmas gift.

    “Some of the patients are kind of in shock when they open their gift, because a lot of them have been homeless – a lot of them haven”t had a normal family life with Christmas traditions, and they can”t believe it,” said volunteer coordinator Shawna Peterson. “Others I”ve seen cry because they”re so overcome with emotion.”

    The hospital”s “Forgotten patient program” celebrates its 36th year this season.

    Gray-uniformed hospital volunteers, known as “the gray ladies,” began the gift-giving tradition after they saw patients with no family greet Christmas morning empty-handed.

    The tradition started simply, Peterson said. Patients received a candy cane and an orange.

    Over the years, the tradition has grown to be a prized and personalized tradition, she said.

    Today, the hospital staff gives sponsors a list including a patient”s name, weight, height and hobbies, along with patients” gift requests and staff suggestions of what each particular patient needs.

    “What to buy is up to the sponsors,” Peterson said. “We just give ideas.”

    Sponsors come from the community, and many past-patients also help, Peterson said.

    “The program is one of the things that makes a difference in their lives,” said hospital superintendent Mark Payne. “It is very meaningful to the people who don”t have family.”

    Payne also said the program offers something valuable to everyone involved.

    “There have been some relationships built with this program,” he said. “It”s great and it is an opportunity for us to serve them.”

    Peterson said receiving a gift touches lonely patients deeply.

    “Many of the patients are estranged from their families,” she said. “I can”t imagine what it would be like to spend all of Christmas by yourself in the hospital.”

    Peterson also said opening gifts gives patients an opportunity to reminisce.

    “Many start telling stories about ”My mom and dad used to do this,” or ”My kids loved that,”” she said.

    Remembering the forgotten patients has become a holiday tradition for many local families, Peterson said.

    “Many people have made this a family-oriented tradition,” she said. “Families learn about the mentally ill – what a person has been through.”

    Most sponsors spend $40 to $50 on a patient.

    If that is too much for a sponsor, Peterson said she puts two sponsors on a patient”s list.

    If sponsors do not want to shop, Peterson said they can simply drop-off a check.

    “We like those kind of sponsors, too,” she said.

    Over the program”s long history, Peterson said the hospital has been fortunate to always have a gift for each forgotten patient. This year there are 250.

    “It does a lot for their morale,” said Peterson, “a lot for their spirit.”

    Those who would like to sponsor a forgotten patient this year can call Shawna Peterson at 344-4254.

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