Martina Kaufman never knows what a resident of Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township will want for Christmas. One year, someone wanted green apples, so she went out and bought them. Another year, a person asked for a large container of the twisted red candy called Twizzlers.
“Then the next day someone donated a large container of Twizzlers,” she said. “What are the chances of someone donating that right after someone asked for it? Sometimes there are little miracles.”
Kaufman is hoping for more wishes fulfilled this year as part of Operation Reindeer, a program that Mental Health American of Southwestern PA has been running for more than 50 years. She is the program coordinator for MHA’s Step-Up Drop In Center in Latrobe, which took over Operation Reindeer. She works closely with Lenny Meketa, the volunteer coordinator at Torrance who is in charge of the hospital’s Three Wishes program.
Operation Reindeer collects items requested by residents in the state hospital’s Christmas program, and also items that can be used all year. They focus on people from Westmoreland County (there are currently around 40) for the Christmas gifts, and the excess is available to others from the pool of donations.
Some things have changed and some have remained the same in the nine years that Kaufman has been coordinating the holiday program.
“Phone cards used to be a big deal, and all that changed with cell phones,” she said. “Now people aren’t asking for them like they used to.”
One thing that remains constant is the need for luggage.
“We find that patients who are being discharged from Torrance and going home, or are going into a personal care home or step down unit, end up putting their stuff in a black garbage bag,” Kaufman said. “That makes them feel like they are being thrown out. The luggage allows the patient some dignity when being discharged.”
Donated luggage doesn’t have to be new, nor do the coats, jackets, shoes and boots that the residents need. At one time the program asked for those to be new, but the need is so great that they are accepting ones that are gently used.
People who enter the hospital in the summer don’t prepare for the winter, and many of them don’t have family members who will bring appropriate clothes later on. The need for winter wear is especially great for large, extra large and even bigger sizes for both men and women.
“A lot of people are on powerful meds that are notorious for causing weight gain,” Kaufman said. “That’s an unfortunate side effect. Last year, we purchased a 5X coat for a resident.”
Other items of requested clothes should be new, and also in plus sizes, at least XL for men and L for women.
Even much larger sizes, Kaufman said, “are greatly needed.” Suggested items include sweatshirts and sweatpants, tops, T-shirts, pants, jeans, bathrobes, socks, mittens, gloves, hats, ear muffs, sweaters, undergarments and pajamas.
Toiletries are always welcome. That includes shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash, combs, brushes, pony tail holders, hand and body lotions, shaving gels and creams, lip balm and makeup like lipstick or gloss, powder, eye shadow and mascara.
Belts, glass, razors and other items that are a safety hazard are not accepted.
“We get a lot of requests for portable CD players and CDs, but they don’t get donated very often,” Kaufman said.
Patients also request DVDs, radios, games, activity books, handheld games, wallets, watches, sports memorabilia (especially Pittsburgh teams), writing paper and postage stamps. Diabetic and sugarless items are also appreciated.
Monetary donations are used mostly to purchase coats and shoes.
“We have local churches and organizations, and some companies that help out,” Kaufman said. “And so many people stop by to drop off things and don’t even want to leave their names. I am so grateful that they just want to help.”
Step-Up Drop In Center is for individuals who have received or are receiving mental health services. Some of the clients there who have been at Torrance have told her how much Operation Reindeer meant to them.
“One man said that what he got from the program was the only thing that he got for Christmas,” Kaufman said.
Items and monetary donations can be dropped off at Step-Up Drop In Center at 326 Main St., between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The deadline is Dec. 10. For information, contact Kaufman at 724-537-6120 or email@example.com.