By Woody Woodrick
During the Christmas season many groups and organizations “adopt” those who are less fortunate to share the love of the holiday season.
Adopted groups range from orphans to down-on-their-luck families to the homeless. One group, however, that often is overlooked are the mentally ill. Mental illnesses still carry a stigma that can make even the most generous groups uncomfortable.
One United Methodist church, however, makes a point to reach out to those with mental illnesses. Eastlawn UMC in Pascagoula has for several years provided Christmas gifts and food to neighbors who are seriously mentally ill. Working with the Outreach Club House program of Singing River Mental Health-Mental Retardation Services, Eastlawn provides three gifts, a “stocking” of goodies and a party luncheon for clients of the program. This year’s party is scheduled for Dec. 19.
“We just take them a truckload of love,” said Winfred Morie, who started the program about 15 years ago.
The Rev. Gene Vance, pastor at Eastlawn, said the project has become the highlight of Christmas for many of the church members. “This allows us to get involved with people that Jesus loves and cares about. It makes our Christmas. These young men and women are so excited. Many are not going to get a Christmas at all except what we give them,” he said.
Morie was serving as a mental health commissioner when he learned one year that the Singing River program had not been able to budget any funds for Christmas for its clients. Previously, $10 per client for a gift and meal had been budgeted. Morie took the idea to his Sunday school class at Eastlawn.
“They jumped on it and bought everybody a present and money for a meal,” Morie said.
The next year, he said, he was reluctant to take advantage of the class’s generosity, but the members said they wanted to do it again. Other classes had heard about it and asked to take part. Soon the entire church was involved.
“We eventually started giving each client a chance to fill out a wish list,” Morie said. “People from church adopt them. This year 43 were adopted by church. We give them a Christmas.
“So many of these people have made bad decisions. They don’t have a support base, and have been diagnosed for many years as mentally ill. Some won’t open the gifts at the party because they want to open them on Christmas morning.”
Dr. Sherman F. Blackwell II, executive director of the mental health center, echoed Morie.
“Most of our clients do not have close relatives. They don’t have anyone to care about them,” he said. “Every year the clients get what the want and need. It’s just awesome.”
Morie said some church members aren’t able to take part in purchasing gifts or attend the party, but they help financially. Some give $25 for as much as $100. He said the church usually receives about $1,200 to make sure the project has all it needs.
Even when facing hard times of their own, the Eastlawn members have made sure the clients get some kind of Christmas gift.
“Three years ago (Hurricane) Katrina came and messed us up and them,” he said, “but we carried them Christmas bags. Ninety percent of church members got water in the homes and had no insurance. Yet, when the time came, they gave money and we were able to give each client $25 gift certificates plus a bag of goodies.
“These folks just have big, big hearts.”
Shortly after Thanksgiving when the wish lists have been received by the church, members begin adopting clients. When possible, church groups gather to pack the stockings, which are actually paper bags. One year, Morie hosted a party for the youth group, which filled the bags. Everything is then transported, along with food for the meal, to the Club House for the party. Morie said preparations require “a lot of shopping” to cook the huge meal. He said the meal usually includes chicken and dressing, 125 pieces of fried chicken, potato salad, butter beans, peas and okra.
Morie said the clients seem eager for the event, but gaining their trust took some time.
“When we first started, we carried the presents over, but these people would not get within 30 feet of you,” he said. “After the third year, they began to get closer. The fourth year one said, ‘you give me a hug.’ That broke the ice.”
And melted the hearts of Eastlawn members. Morie said some of the clients will show up at the church form time to time and attend Sunday school and worship. When they arrive they find the members show “the open hearts they have and the acceptance.”
“They have a variety of mental problems, but they come and visit our Sunday school classes and want to give their input. People so accepting of them when they try like that,” he said.
Blackwell said that acceptance means a lot to the clients.
“When the church comes, (the clients) get the feeling that they’re just like everybody else,” he said. “The folks at Eastlawn don’t see the stigma of mental health when they come. To know someone cares about you and treats you as an equal, which they are, is special.
“You can see the love that people at Eastlawn have for doing this. The passion they have for doing it is just awesome. You can feel God’s presence; you can feel it because God’s people are doing it.”