Merlene Davis: Couple helps prepare Thanksgiving meal for those seeking a safe place

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 27, 2013 

On Tuesday, Michael Beard, Phillip Rowe and Jeramie Ward tested cookies that were being baked at Participation Station for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday.

  • IF YOU GIVE

    The following is a list of items requested as gifts for patients at Eastern State Hospital. Items can be dropped off at the hospital, 1350 Bull Lea Road, or at Participation Station, 869 Sparta Court.

    CLOTHING: T-shirts: sizes medium-4x, sweaters, house slippers, women's and men's socks, blue jeans (men and women) all sizes, sweat shirts: (men and women) sizes medium-4x (no strings), sweat pants: (men and women) sizes medium-4x (no strings), underwear (men and women) all sizes.

    GROOMING ITEMS: Black and brown mascara, eye liner, eye shadow (no mirrors), foundation (no mirrors), lipstick, cologne/perfume (men and women), plastic bottles, hair barrettes, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, body wash, lotion, deodorant, Chap Stick.

    ACCESSORIES: Jewelry items, wallets (men and women), gloves (men and women); purses/make-up bags, sunglasses/ reading glasses, baseball caps/hats, inexpensive watches.

    UNIT GIFTS: Radio headsets (no cords), playing cards, board games, stationery, music CDs, markers/crayons, activity and coloring books, journals.

    For more information: Contact Jeffrey Johnson at Jeffrey.Johnson@esh.ukhc.org.

Some of us can't be with family Thursday, hindered by distance, work schedules or lack of money.

But we have options. We can share a meal and good-humored banter with friends or co-workers, who invite us to join their celebration of thanks.

There is a small group of people who have decided to gather in their safe place today to give thanks, sheltered from the stares and visible recoils of strangers who embrace the negative stigma associated with the mentally ill.

That group includes more than 20 people who will enjoy a home-cooked meal prepared by their hands at Participation Station, a support and drop-in center for those working toward mental health and recovery.

"It is a peer-operated center for people with serious and chronic mental illness," said Kelly Gunning, Creative and Operations Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lexington.

The dinner "isn't something dictated by a program," she said. "They see themselves as a family; they support one another. They asked permission to have their dinners here, where they met."

A few of the participants spent Tuesday evening baking snickerdoodles and brownies and preparing a turkey for its starring role. They also tried out a few punch recipes, voting on the best.

Johnny and Diane Schiffer, who have been regular visitors at the station, decided last year to put together the meal and gather there instead of traveling to their daughter's home.

"We decided to make that our extended family," Johnny Schiffer said. "We wanted there to be a place for people to go on the holidays. This is a very hard time for some people."

Johnny Schiffer said he has lived with depression and post traumatic stress for 42 years, since returning from the Vietnam War. He married Diane about a year after he returned, "so it is kind of a way of life for us," he said.

A little more than a year ago, he started going to Participation Station and becoming active in programs there. Recently he was certified as a peer specialist, which enables him to tell his story to other participants, lead them in their recovery and help them learn to be independent.

"This is a peer-run group," he said. "There are no therapists, no psychiatrists. It's one person looking after another.

"As some of us go further into recovery new people listen to us and learn how we have traveled on the path to recovery and we give them support and help," he said.

While there may be fear and judgment awaiting them outside of that center, participants don't experience any stigma once they come in.

"There is no such thing as a black person or a white person," Johnny said. "We are there and we all have the same problems."

The center also serves as a drop-off site for items donated to patients who are transitioning out of Eastern State Hospital, as some of the participants have done.

"We support people coming out of hospitals and other programs and we teach them daily living skills," Gunning said.

About 110 people are residents of the hospital on any given day and when they leave they sometimes need basic items.

Jeffrey Johnson, the volunteer coordinator at the hospital, sent out a holiday letter to various community partners and church groups asking for clothing, grooming items, wallets, purses, make-up, caps and even board games, CDs, cordless radio headsets and playing cards.

"We provide basic things while they are here," he said. "But a lot of patients have burned a lot of bridges to get here and don't have family support. Some will be going to personal care and group homes throughout the state when they leave."

The donated items help make Christmas special for those patients, he said.

Meanwhile, though participants need to take one day at a time, one holiday at a time.

"This is a very hard time for some people," Johnny Schiffer said.

Schiffer said his wife, Diane, is not only the strength behind his recovery, but is also the chief cook for the gathering.

Before helping with the meal at the Participation Station, the couple prepared the annual Thanksgiving dinner for the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission.

Tuesday evening, Diane Schiffer had already roasted a couple of turkeys and was preparing a couple more, as well as a honey glazed spiral ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, rolls and whatever else was needed.

The Schiffers pay for the meal, and put up a sign-up sheet for people to bring something, although it isn't a pre-requisite for those eating to bring a dish. And, just like family, a few people had signed up to bring their favorite dessert or dish.

Everyone is welcome to the meal as long as the food lasts. Participation Station, 869 Sparta Court, opens at 10 a.m. on Thursdays. Dinner will probably start at noon.

"We plan to be there until 4," Diane Schiffer said. "I'm sure we will have more than enough food."

So stop by Thursday and get to know some of your neighbors. Later you can go back and drop off needed basic items there or at Eastern State for people who are moving toward recovery.


If you give

The following is a list of items requested as gifts for patients at Eastern State Hospital. Items can be dropped off at the hospital, 1350 Bull Lea Road, or at Participation Station, 869 Sparta Court.

CLOTHING: T-shirts: sizes medium-4x, sweaters, house slippers, women's and men's socks, blue jeans (men and women) all sizes, sweat shirts: (men and women) sizes medium-4x (no strings), sweat pants: (men and women) sizes medium-4x (no strings), underwear (men and women) all sizes.

GROOMING ITEMS: Black and brown mascara, eye liner, eye shadow (no mirrors), foundation (no mirrors), lipstick, cologne/perfume (men and women), plastic bottles, hair barrettes, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, body wash, lotion, deodorant, Chap Stick.

ACCESSORIES: Jewelry items, wallets (men and women), gloves (men and women); purses/make-up bags, sunglasses/ reading glasses, baseball caps/hats, inexpensive watches.

UNIT GIFTS: Radio headsets (no cords), playing cards, board games, stationery, music CDs, markers/crayons, activity and coloring books, journals.

For more information: Contact Jeffrey Johnson at Jeffrey.Johnson@esh.ukhc.org.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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