The gift of empathy

Hand-decorated stockings donated by the Canadian Mental Health Association bring holiday cheer to mental health inpatients at Parkwood Institute. 

For more than a decade, a group from the Canadian Mental Health Association - Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services (CMHA) has put together gift items for each patient within Parkwood Institute’s various mental health care programs. The initiative, dubbed the Holiday Stocking Project, originated 12 years ago as part of a sewing group by people accessing services at CMHA. It continues to be supported by a dedicated group of peer volunteers.

“Our volunteers decorated more than 100 gift bags this year, one for each mental health inpatient at Parkwood Institute who will be in hospital over Christmas,” says Afsaneh Azari, mental health worker at CMHA.

two women standing on either side of a Christmas tree, surrounded by gift bag stockings
Canadian Mental Health Association mental health worker Afsaneh Azari, left and St. Joseph’s Patient’s Council Facilitator Rachel Hudson.

This year’s goodies include items such as socks, mini-sized personal care items, individually wrapped treats, toothbrushes, and playing cards. Each gift comes in hand-decorated gift bags, carefully crafted and decorated by CMHA volunteers with lived mental health experience. 

“I believe the stocking initiative provides an opportunity for members of our community to join together and spread hope and empathy to those who might be battling darkness during this season of light,” says Sophie, a community donor who helped with this year’s project. “The packages are laced with compassion and act as a reminder to patients that they are part of a community that cares.”

As an extra special touch, a Holiday Messages of Hope video was also created and is being enjoyed by inpatients across Parkwood Institute’s mental health care programs. The messages, which appear in written form set to music, were submitted by community members as well as CMHA staff and volunteers.

“Everyone matters,” says Jessica Carswell, CMHA wellness worker. “We hope to bring a smile to their faces and bring a little extra holiday cheer to their day.”

close up view of hand decorated gift bags under a Christmas tree
Each hand-decorated gift bag was carefully crafted by Canadian Mental Health Association volunteers with lived mental health experience.

Rachel Hudson, patient council facilitator at St. Joseph’s, helps to coordinate the delivery of the gift bags to each unit, which are distributed by staff to each patient on Christmas Day. “We are truly grateful for our strong partnership with CMHA and for the thoughtfulness of their volunteers,” says Rachel. “It’s been a difficult year for all, due the ongoing pandemic and this kind gesture means so much to the lives of the people we serve.”

Afsaneh echoes that thought, “I believe this event is a dance. It is the time when all participants, whoever they may be, either a giver or receiver, bring and circulate a special energy of loving kindness, and it becomes the most meaningful dance of the year.”

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