Whitfield — ‘Tis the season once again, the time to celebrate the joy and good cheer of Christmastime. Nowhere is the excitement of the season more evident than at the Mississippi State Hospital (MSH). The patients and residents there look forward to the annual special programs tailor-made just for them. And every year, the MSH staff looks forward to the hundreds of volunteers who make these special services possible by organizing gifts, singing carols, writing letters, donating money — even playing Santa Claus.
“The staff here is busy year-round, but especially at Christmas,” said Shelia Shows, director of Volunteer Services at MSH who wasn’t sure exactly how long MSH’s Christmas program had been offered, but could verify they have been ongoing for more than 20 years. “Volunteers are extremely important at MSH, and we have those that volunteer their time year-round. But their time, and monetary donations, are especially important at Christmas. We simply couldn’t offer these programs without their generosity.”
Each Christmas, the more than 1,500 patients and residents of MSH and Jaquith Nursing Home are treated to parties and gifts received at the Christmas House. Building 71 is transformed each year at this time into the Christmas House, which serves as the clearinghouse for the massive amounts of donations received each year. And each year, hundreds of volunteers come in to prepare gift bags of goodies for those on the sprawling campus at Whitfield in rural Rankin County, which is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary and is the largest facility of its kind in the nation.
Staff from each building prepares a list of items for those patients and residents in their charge. That list is then sent to the Christmas House, where staff and volunteers put together personalized candy/fruit and gift bags, primarily composed of donated items though a few gifts are purchased with monetary donations from the community. The Christmas House operates from December 1-22.
Patients and residents from each building are then brought in for a party held just for them. More than 115 of these parties were held last year. And who hosts these parties? Volunteers do. They sing songs, serve snacks and food (one organization donates a complete turkey dinner) and other activities. The culmination of the program is “Santa Day,” held December 22. On that day, each facility is visited by a Santa. These “Santas” are CEOS of hospitals, legislators, chamber personnel — in short, volunteers.
“It’s a well-run program, and there’s simply nothing like it,” Shows said. “The entire PR staff here goes to all the parties. It’s great time for us, too, and we look forward to it. But there’s not enough staff to conduct all these activities. We simply could not pull it off without our volunteers.”
So, what do the volunteers get out of all this? Plenty, they said.
“If you could see the expression on their faces. It’s just great,” said Gale Martin, executive director of the Rankin County Chamber of Commerce, which, between staff and members, could contribute up to 100 volunteers this year. “I’ve been with the chamber for three years, and I have participated all three years. I never realized the services they offer at the Mississippi State Hospital. It’s unreal.”
After a pause, Martin added with a laugh, “I’m a big guy anyway, so being a Santa is a natural.”
Assistant director of the chamber Jennifer Stegall agreed with Martin. “I had the flu last year and couldn’t attend. So, I’m really looking forward to being back this year.”
Stegall heads up Youth Leadership Rankin County, and this year’s class will be there in support of the efforts — and Martin personally. “The class is volunteering to help, and some have committed to being Santa’s elves,” she added.
Miriam Hollens with the Mississippi Homemakers Volunteers, and who also serves as president of the Friends of Mississippi State Hospital, a 375-member, nonprofit founded in 1987 to promote the work done at MSH, is another who finds working at MSH rewarding. “Oh, it’s just a wonderful program,” the Florence resident said. “I look forward to it every year. I believe I get more out of it than the patients and residents do.”
Willie Taylor with the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE) said 12-20 people from NAPFE will be involved this year. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years now,” Taylor said. “It’s so very fulfilling, to see the enjoyment they get from the program.”
Shows, who left a banking career to work as coordinator of Volunteer Services, said once volunteers participate in Christmas House and all the festivities, they are usually hooked. Many promptly expand the scope of their volunteer efforts at MSH.
“Many of our volunteers come back year after year,” she said. “I think many see it as a type of ministry. I know I do.”
For more information or to make a donation, contact MSH’s Clothing/Donation Center at (601) 351-8155.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.