CMHA Toronto’s Holiday Gift Program: Spreading belonging, joy and lifting spirits

November 15, 2023
In the heart of the holiday season, CMHA Toronto's gift program spreads joy and lifts the spirits of those who may feel forgotten at what is often a difficult time of year. The program's gifts are more than just presents – they're messages of hope, care, and belonging.

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CMHA Toronto’s holiday gift program is one of its longest-standing ones, launched over half a century ago by a group of women who fundraised to buy holiday gifts for people involved with the agency’s psychiatric outpatient clinic. These people, in the hospital during the holiday season, found comfort in knowing that they were not forgotten. CMHA Toronto’s Laura Monastero explains that then, as now, "people who were in the hospital and wouldn't be participating in any family get-togethers, or receiving or exchanging gifts, would feel like they belonged, that they had someone who cared about them."

The tradition lives on and has grown over the years. The program has expanded to include clients of 16 partnering agencies and children of clients across the GTA.

Kerri Glover, who leads CMHA Toronto’s Pathways, Recovery College, and Holiday Gift programs, starts planning and shopping for gift season mid-year, or what the team calls “Christmas in July.” The program begins taking orders from case managers across CMHA Toronto and partnering agencies that include residential homes like Madison House Lofts and the inpatient and residential services of Scarborough Health Network.

This year, Kerri and her team are in the midst of wrapping more than 5,000 gifts, which will be distributed to families in December.

The holiday gift program brings a smile not only to those who receive the gifts, but to the gift-givers, too. “It makes me very emotional when I see what this program means to the people who get these gifts,” said Kerri. “I never thought that a program like this, especially around the holidays, could give you such joy. It really makes you take a look at the way that you spend your money on your own family.”

For those of us involved in running the holiday gift program, I think it really puts things into perspective and really makes you think about giving back.

Shopping for her own family spurred Kerri to introduce the idea of extending gifts to children of clients. The idea “came from the perspective of my experience with my own son and realizing how much things cost,” she said.

“Sometimes people have to decide whether to pay for rent or put food on the table, especially now that things are so expensive,” added Kerri, reflecting on the difficult choices that parents sometimes need to make. These decisions are even more difficult for those struggling with a mental health issue who may not be in a position, either financially or emotionally, to cope with holiday demands.

“You don't realize the niceties that we take for granted when we see a sweater that we like, or we see a perfume or hand cream that we like,” Laura reflected, saying that many of us are able to buy these things without a second thought. And while the gift program is appreciated by adults, “it’s the kids of our clients who really feel the impact,” said Kerri.

Kerri takes great care in preparing the gifts to ensure they are thoughtfully curated and are presented with a heartfelt touch that helps make gift recipients feel truly special during the holiday season. Each gift is packaged with a holiday card, stickers, and in a gift bag.

The gift program selects items for children up to age 18 and for adults, offering fun and comforting gifts such as blankets, new towels, and mugs stuffed with sweet treats. One year, a knit poncho was a big hit, and another a pair of reading socks sparked tremendous joy for those who received them.

These gifts aren't just tokens; they can be necessities for those struggling to make ends meet. "We see a lot of people who will forego buying toiletries, for example. They’re just too expensive," said Laura. That’s why Kerri’s shopping list always includes items like soap, hand cream, shower gel, deodorant, and lip balm.

While these items may seem small to some, for many recipients they reaffirm their self-worth, value and sense of connection. The program's importance extends beyond the material, reminding people that there is a network of caring individuals who have their best interests at heart.

We're giving clients those little things to say ‘hey, you matter.’

The program’s reach is non-denominational and inclusive, allowing case managers to tailor gifts to their clients' preferences and needs. Some choose it as an end-of-year gift, others for a holiday that is important to their client such as Tamil New Year in January.

Regardless of what holiday a client may or may not be celebrating, the opportunity to connect is meaningful for everyone involved. And in a world where economic choices are often tough, and holidays can present significant stresses to those with mental health issues, the CMHA Toronto holiday gift program stands as a beacon of hope and compassion, reminding us that a simple gesture can make a profound difference in the lives of those who need it most.

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