Every patient at Oregon State Hospital will receive a wrapped present with two gifts inside this holiday season, thanks to a 37-year-old volunteer effort, the Caring Tree.
As the holidays approach, staff, volunteers, and outside donors purchase gifts for patients by selecting a card from the Caring Tree in the hospital entrance lobby. Some donors also make monetary contributions to help fund gift shopping.
As gifts are collected, at least 500 volunteer hours are put into wrapping gifts for each of the 687 patients at the psychiatric facilities in Salem and Junction City.
The project celebrates the season of giving, not any specific holiday, said Marilyn Nichols, volunteer coordinator of Oregon State Hospital. Patients may have differing religions, she explained, but the volunteers still want to make sure each patient is given a gift that brings them joy during this time of the year.
“I want to make sure the patients have a nice holiday,” said Nichols.
Months of preparation and a huge volunteer effort
Caring Tree efforts begin with initial collection of patients’ wish lists in July and August. All gift requests must go through an approval process to ensure the items are considered safe.
Common requests include snacks and candy, hoodies and sweatshirts, and socks and cozy blankets.
By the time the holiday season arrives, hundreds of cards are hung on the Caring Tree. As new patients are admitted, their gift requests are taken too.
Staff volunteers and outside volunteers do gift wrapping shifts six days a week leading up to delivery.
Some retired staff members come back each year to help wrap presents.
When the gifts are sent to patient units for delivery, handmade bows are included to place on each present. Many staff and volunteers make bows during their free time using only spare wrapping paper and tape. Ribbon bows cannot be used as the ribbon and staples could be dangerous for patients.
About 750 gifts will be wrapped this year, including extra gifts containing a puzzle and blanket in case any new patients are admitted after it’s too late to get their wish lists.
Nichols, the program’s volunteer coordinator, retired in April after working in the position for eight years, but came back to see the Caring Tree project through.
“It started tugging at my heart,” she said. “That’s why I came back.”
Bringing holiday joy to those who are in ‘a difficult place‘
The holidays can be a difficult time for many, including patients facing mental health conditions and isolation, said Ryan Stafford, director of volunteer services at Oregon State Hospital.
Some patients come from homelessness or low-income families. Many have little to no family visit them. Others are not used to celebrating the holidays or might not have received a present before.
Stafford recounted the story of a patient who came to the hospital with no possessions. The patient had never had anything before that was just his, and so was so excited to receive a gift, Stafford said.
“In the midst of a difficult place for people, it’s purely a positive thing,” said Stafford.
He said that being able to offer that joy to patients is what the Caring Tree is all about.
Sydney Wyatt covers healthcare inequities in the Mid-Willamette Valley for the Statesman Journal. Send comments, questions, and tips to her atSWyatt@gannett.com, (503) 399-6613, or on Twitter@sydney_elise44
The Statesman Journal’s coverage of healthcare inequities is funded in part by theM.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which seeks to strengthen the cultural, social, educational, and spiritual base of the Pacific Northwest through capacity-building investments in the nonprofit sector.