t one time, Seymour Eye Clinic employees drew names and bought each other Christmas gifts.

But it reached a point where everybody knew everyone’s gifts, taking the fun out of it.

So for the past dozen years, they have been involved with Mental Health America of Jackson County’s Christmas Gift Lift, which has provided gifts to people with some

kind of mental illness or developmental disability

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since 1951.

Those employees now get excited about buying things that someone needs and appreciates.

“It makes us feel good because that’s the real meaning of Christmas, doing things for people that you don’t feel obligated to do,” Alice Hildreth said. “When you do something you feel obligated to do, then that’s what takes the spirit out of Christmas. That’s not true giving.”

This year, the person Hildreth drew wanted a winter coat, so that’s what she purchased.

“I thought, ‘Some people just need those things. We’ve got 10 in the closet at home, and that’s all they want,’” she said.

Even though she doesn’t get to meet the person receiving the gift, Hildreth said, contributing to this project is fulfilling.

“The things we bought for each other (in the office) weren’t things that we needed,” she said. “It’s just the silly little things that we want. We want to give them to each other, but it’s not the feeling of giving to somebody that you don’t even know that just needs something. That comes straight from the heart.”

Bob Dembek has been involved with the Christmas Gift Lift for four years, including the past two as executive director of Mental Health America of Jackson County. He said it’s great to see people come together.

Child Care Network, Cummins Seymour Engine Plant and Kremers Urban Pharmaceuticals also purchased gifts for local Mental Health America clients, and Wal-Mart Distribution Center gave

a grant.

There also were donation boxes placed at all county schools and a couple of banks, giving the public a chance to help out.

“It really amazes me how supportive groups in the community really are,” Dembek said. “They go above and beyond and buy some real nice gifts for the clients. They are willing to spend a little more per person sometimes than we have the money available to do. And they are so upbeat about it. They are enthusiastic about trying to help out.”

Office manager Stefanie Richart said she has worked at Seymour Eye Clinic for 23 years and has enjoyed participating in the Christmas Gift Lift for the past

12 years.

Each of the 10 employees gets a piece of paper with a client’s first name and one or two items the recipient wants.

“These people who are in different homes, a lot of them don’t have family members, and they don’t get gifts,” Richart said. “It’s just our way of paying it forward. It makes you feel real good.”

Richart said she expects the office to continue being involved with the Christmas Gift Lift.

“Absolutely. We don’t even ask anymore. It’s just a given,” she said. “Everybody here will tell you we look forward to it.”

The Christmas Gift Lift is Mental Health America of Jackson County’s biggest project of the year. In the summer, Dembek sent out letters seeking support from local groups.

Then in the fall, the nonprofit organization’s board spent part of a day shopping for gifts at Walmart. They later came together to wrap those gifts along with the ones provided by the companies and businesses.

On Tuesday, they loaded up the bags of gifts into vehicles and took them to the final social of the year at Central Christian Church in Seymour. There, Dembek spoke about the project and thanked everyone who contributed. Then the 100 clients and their guests ate dinner before opening gifts.

Watching the clients open gifts is the best part, Dembek said.

“It’s fun; it’s a good time, and you know all this work that we put in the last month and a half is worth it,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is that the clients feel good about things, and most of the gifts are just everyday things. Nothing really special, but things they need.”

The clients range from teenagers to senior citizens who live in local group homes, on their own or with their parents.

“I try to help them out in little ways, help them feel better about themselves,” Dembek said. “The biggest thing is we all need to feel good about ourselves, and if we can do that in some way to help them feel better about themselves … they just want someone to talk to. As I get to know the clients better and better, I see more and more in the community.”

Dembek said other socials are conducted throughout the year at the church, community center or park. Those typically draw at least 50 people, he said.

“The goal of the socials is people need to be among other people. We all do, no matter what we’re facing in our lives,” he said. “We could be shy and like being alone, but we still at times need other people. Others are so much more outgoing, so they enjoy being with people. That’s just an opportunity in a setting that they can feel safe and welcome.”

At a glance

Mental Health America of Jackson County is one of 60 local chapters in Indiana and is affiliated with National Mental Health America. It also is a Jackson County United Way partner agency.

The organization’s vision is to have a just, humane and healthy society in which all people are accorded respect, dignity and the opportunity to achieve their full potential free from stigma and prejudice.

The mission is to work to educate and promote awareness of all aspects of mental health to the residents of Jackson County and to support those families and individuals affected by a mental illness.

For information, visit mentalhealthamericajc.net, call 812-522-3480, email mhajc@cabjackson.org or stop by the office in the Community Agency Building in downtown Seymour at 113 N. Chestnut St.

Pull Quote

“It really amazes me how supportive groups in the community really are. They go above and beyond and buy some real nice gifts for the clients.”

Bob Dembek, executive director of Mental Health America of Jackson County, on Christmas Gift Lift

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.