Christmas Project Cheer is helping to renew hope for residents in mental health treatment facilities in Okaloosa and Walton Counties. For more than 40 years, the project has brought the joy of holiday gifts to this often overlooked group of people.
One out of every four people has a treatable mental health condition. Project Cheer was established by the Mental Health Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties to provide a little happiness at the holidays to the area’s over 600 residents in need.
Virginia Barr is a clinical social worker and the Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties. Barr says “The Mental Health Association is a 56 year old not for profit agency, and among the many things we do and probably the longest program we have running here is Christmas Project Cheer. Christmas Project Cheer brings hope and Christmas to where it needs to be the most.”
Barr has been involved with the Association for 25 years. She served on the Board of Directors in 1989, and then was elected President of the organization in 1993. Barr says Project Cheer reaches out to numerous facilities in the community.
“We reach out to places like Psychiatric Institutions at Florida State Hospital, residential group homes in Okaloosa and Walton, West Florida Community Care, which is a longer term treatment facility in this area. And we bring gifts to those who have none.”
Project Cheer costs almost $11,000 annually and provides each patient including children that may not be able to be home for the holidays with a gift and a care bag filled with items donated by the community throughout the year. Bar says, “Those care bags are filled with necessary items like soap and shampoo and knit caps and new socks and new shirts and razor blades and snacks. It kind of depends on where the care bag is going as to what we are able to bring. But, we also bring for each person in a residential facility, a brand new shirt, a brand new blouse, a brand new nightgown. Sized, wrapped for that person on the day of Christmas.”
Highlighting the importance of the project, Barr emphasizes the stigma attached to mental illness. “Everyone wants to be remembered and this group is tremendously discriminated against and sort of largely forgotten. People think they’re too different than me too strange than me. All it is, is people who have a brain disorder which can be largely mitigated, maybe never really gone away entirely when it comes to schizophrenia or bipolar or major clinical depression, but one that can bring back a quality of life in a combination of therapy, medication.”
The Mental Health Association has played a pivotal role in the community since the 1950s. They work as advocates for the mentally ill and support the well-being of all people including the homeless. The association educates the public, campaigns for excellence and equality in treatment and provides mental health referral and support services free of charge. “Good mental health is important to have and sometimes you don’t know it until you don’t have it. So we tell them that good mental health is feeling good about you, feeling good about me, and feeling good about life.”
Christmas Project Cheer is one of the many things the association does for the area. As Executive Director, Barr knows it’s a year round process to make the program a success. More information about making a donation or becoming a volunteer is available on the organization’s website at M-H-A-O-W-dot-org.