Club House Christmas Prog
A History of Eastlawn's Christmas Program Ministry To The Clubhouse
First let me explain what the “Clubhouse” is and who its members are. The Clubhouse was first called the Intensive Outpatient Therapy Program for the “Chronic Mentally Ill” or “CMI” patients. To euphemize the term it was renamed the Clubhouse even though all the care and treatment remained the same. During this era of euphemizing they began to refer to the patients as “clients”. At that time they also changed the term to “Serious Mentally Ill” or “SMI”. The criteria to qualify for this program was that the person had to be institutionalized at least two time or have been diagnosed with a severe mental disorder for at least ten years. When many of the clients are discharged from our state mental hospitals they are referred to programs in their area like the Clubhouse.
At the Clubhouse their medication and behavior is monitored daily. They receive training in caring for themselves with the ultimate goal of improving to the point of being able to gain employment and returning to live as normal life as possible on their own. However, due to the seriousness of some of their illnesses some are never able to reach that point. Over the years we have come to know and love many of the clients who are in this status. We are always thankful for those who improve and are able to leave the program but still we miss them greatly. Two of them, Calvin and Willie W., have passed away, both were loved and near the heart of many of our members here at Eastlawn.
Even though all of these clients are mentally ill and in most cases their behavior is somewhat different, yet we find them to be caring and gentle people. Those patients that show violent tendencies are excluded from the program. However, due to their mental illnesses they have made many bad choices in their lives which have left them with little or no support base in their lives. Due to their chronic depression and lack of family love and support many find little joy and happiness in their lives. Believe me, if they did not have the limitations in their reasoning, due to their illness, they would not have made many of choices in life that has alienated them from their friends and family.
A little over 20 years ago while I was serving as the Mental Health Commissioner of Jackson County I was informed that we had inadvertently left out of our budget the line item for the Christmas program for the Clubhouse which was $10.00 per client. There was to be $5.00 for a gift and $5.00 for their Christmas meal. Due to budget restraints we were unable to borrow or take from another program. I brought this dilemma to the Joyce Hamilton Sunday School Class and they gladly accepted. Each client gave us a wish list of one present, (most were hair dryers, cologne or underwear) and our class members adopted the clients and donated the money for the meal which at that time was prepared by the Clubhouse staff.
Due to confidentiality concerns only Rev. Loney Joe Hallberg, Robert Weathersby, Mickey and I were allowed attend. Robert led us in Christmas carols, Loney Joe gave a Christmas devotion and for the next couple of years this was the procedure. During this time the trust of the clients toward us was very limited to say the least. However, with the staff’s permission we were able to bring a small group to sing to the clients. About that time someone suggested that we give two presents instead of the one and other Sunday school classes asked to participate, some by donating money and others by adopting the clients. But as soon as the clients began to accept us the limitations were lifted and many of from Eastlawn attended the parties. All the first parties were held at their facility on Eleventh Street until it was destroyed by Hurricane Georges. Since Hurricane Georges the Christmas parties have been held here at Eastlawn with the exception of when Katrina damaged our Church and that year it was held at one of their facilities the McClamrock Center.
As I pointed out earlier, the clients find it hard to trust anyone and that included us. About the fifth year of the parties, after receiving the gifts and the meal one of the female client standing about ten feet from said, “Can I give you a hug?” The ice was broken and many of the clients will now give hugs and handshakes. Eastlawn is now embedded in their hearts. When I go to the Clubhouse someone will always ask me, “Are you from the Church?”
Almost every Christmas party we hear one of the staff members tell us that this is the first time they have seen some of the clients smile since the last Christmas party. Over the years we have moved from giving them a “Christmas party” to giving them a “Christmas”. For many this will be the only Christmas they know. We set a goal that each receives at least three nice gifts, a box of candy, a stocking bag containing fruit, candy, popcorn etc.) and some music CD’s. With this comes a meal that can be described as a feast along with great entertainment.
Sometimes their wish list seems extravagant but when we consider that they are not able to work (at no fault of their own) in fact, that their greatest hope and prayer is that they will get well enough to be able to work. Most do qualify for SSI which is about $550.00 a month which most of it goes to their rent leaving them with little or nothing each month for the pleasures we often take for granted. In their dark world they strive to live a normal or as near normal life as possible. They too like comforters, little kitchen appliances, DVD players and new clothes. The only way they can have these nice things are from people who understand and care about their situation. Mental illness is no different than many other illnesses, a chemical imbalance, which can debilitate a person as other illnesses can affect us. Over the years mental patients has been ostracized as those who suffered from mental illness or leprosy in Jesus’ lifetime.
Each year we have an opportunity to bless someone with the true joy of Christmas. With this program we can say and show love to a person who needs it the most. One of my favorite verses in the Bible, one that Jesus himself said that goes like this, “When you have done unto the least of these you have done unto me.”