Some years, in late November or early December, Ashley Ebbenga would get pulled out of her classroom.
“Starting when I was in fifth grade, my mom would call the school and say, ‘Can Ashley come up to the State Hospital? I need her help,” she recalled.
This was St. Peter, Minnesota, so “State Hospital” was the locals’ way of referring to Minnesota Security Hospital (MSH), the state’s secure psychiatric facility for people who have been declared mentally ill and dangerous. The hospital has been located in St. Peter since 1866 and is still a major local employer.
Ashley’s mother, Lisa, was a long-time MSH volunteer (her father Bryan worked there as a behavior analyst for more than 30 years), and when she took over the hospital’s extensive holiday gift program, there were times during the season when she needed an extra hand. Ashley was more than happy to help out.
“I’d walk over to the hospital and help sort gifts,” she said. “It was a lot of fun, and it always felt like you were doing something good for someone.”
Presents for everyone
For nearly 30 years, doing something good for someone has motivated Ashley and Lisa Ebbenga as they’ve shopped for presents and distributed them to MSH patients. Each December, every patient is given a handful of presents selected by Lisa and Ashley and based on individual “wish lists” that are filled out and used as a guide for the pair as they head out on their epic shopping trips to local stores.
The idea of giving presents to MSH patient comes out of the belief that for people who live in a locked psychiatric facility, the holidays can be a particularly lonely and bleak time of year.
“A lot of the people here, some of them have families and great connections, but there are also plenty of folks, especially the ones who have been here for 20-30 years, who are just forgotten,” Ashley said. “No one visits them. No one sends them presents. We think they still deserve something at this time of year.”
Patients at MSH come from all over Minnesota, added Beth Zabel, MSH volunteer coordinator. Because their family and friends may be far from St. Peter, this only adds to patients’ sense of isolation. “Families don’t always have the funds to travel here to visit,” she said. “And for some families, even mailing things can be cost prohibitive.”
The gifts, which are delivered in late December, celebrate more than Christmas.
“They’re gifts for anyone,” Ashley said, “even if a patient doesn’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukah. We have Muslims and Hindus — all sorts of ethnicities and religions here. The gift program is just a thoughtful thing that patients appreciate. They understand that someone is thinking about them, that someone cares.”
This kind of program might sound unusual, given the range of reasons that people are being treated at MSH. Do members of the public ever question if patients in locked state psychiatric hospital deserve to get holiday presents?
“I think that there’s plenty of people who may say that, but fortunately there are also a lot of people who are able to think a little more globally,” Zabel said, adding that MSH’s holiday gift fund is financed by donors, not by the state. “The folks here have a mental illness first and foremost. This is a treatment facility. People are getting treatment here to deal with their mental illness. Funders understand that they are human beings. And human beings who feel cared for do better and are more likely to recover.”
Six-month shopping spree
If buying holiday gifts for your friends and family sometimes feels like a burden, imagine buying presents for more than 400 people. Beginning in the summer, Lisa and Ashley usually start the process by sorting through their inventory of presents and gift bags left over from the year before and thinking about where they’ll get the best deals this time around. “We start in June or July,” Ashley said, “We start by making lists and thinking, ‘This is what we need to get ready.’”
By fall, patient gift lists start rolling in. “In early October we speak with recreational therapists, unit directors and other staff,” Ashley explained. “We send out a form that they fill out with each person’s wishes. It’s usually four or five things that they would like to have. We do our best getting those items.”
Most patient wish lists tend to lean toward the practical.
“It is not usually the kind of gifts that you and I would ask for,” Ashley said. “They ask for clothing, a few cookies, a little bit of candy, hygiene stuff, stamps, calling cards. Most are asking for what we would think of as basic items.”
Over the years, Ashley and Lisa have gotten to know some long-term patients, like the psychiatric nursing home resident who is a major Elvis Presley fan. Each year Ashley is assigned the task of finding some reasonably priced Elvis paraphernalia for him. Not so long ago she decided to send emails to Elvis fan clubs around the country asking for donations.
“The fan club in Memphis, Tennessee, actually emailed me back right and said, ‘That sounds awesome. What do you want?’” Ashley said. “They sent us two T-shirts. They sent him an honorary Elvis Fan Club membership. He put that card in his wallet. He would not let go of it. He wore those two T-shirts for two months straight.”
Another long-term patient is obsessed with space and space exploration. Ashley likes to take on this challenge, too. “In June or July we’ll start looking for a space-themed book for him,” she said.
And there are other residents who have specific requests that the mother-daughter team takes pride in fulfilling: “We’ll look for a guitar magazine for another person or maybe a woman wants a red dress or a jean jacket,” Ashley said. “We’ll look for that, too.”
More ‘elves’ needed
While each resident gets more than one present, the Ebbengas keep themselves on a tight budget: Around $25-$30 per person. Funds for the program come from local churches, nonprofits, businesses and individuals.
With skills at wringing the most out of a dollar, Ashley and Lisa are able to keep within their annual budget. “These two are super shoppers,” Zabel said. “They can make $30 go a long way.”
The strong community support for the program is a source of pride at MSH, but Zabel said that staff and volunteers would love to see more donations coming from other parts of the state.
“It would be great if the Cities would get more involved,” Ashley added. “There are people being treated here from all over Minnesota, especially Hennepin County.”
The job of buying presents for hundreds of people takes a lot of time and focus. The Ebbengas’ nearly year-round attention to the project helps it run smoothly, but the an intense November-December push is inevitable.
Last week, Ashley and Lisa were at the hospital, “for 20-30 hours,” Zabel said. “They’ve been going like that for three or four weeks already.”
As the countdown continues, the Ebbengas’ commitment only intensifies.
“Now’s the time when things get really crazy,” Lisa said. “We will be here every day from 8 to 5.”
“It’s a full-time job,” Ashley added. “But we’re only volunteers. We get nothing in return except the good feeling of helping someone else.” Like the time a resident requested a Thai-language Bible, a costly purchase that can run as much as $90: “I searched and searched until I found one for $28. That felt amazing.”
Ashley and Lisa do not feel that their efforts go unrewarded. Around the hospital they are fondly known of as ‘The Elves,’ and every winter their mailboxes are filled with hand-written thank-you cards.
“We don’t see many of the patients except the ones that work with Beth,” Ashley said, “but in January all these little notes come in that say things like, ‘Thank you for the new T-shirt. I love it. It’s blue,’ or something simple like that. We also get emails from staff telling us how excited the patents are about their gifts. It’s a satisfying feeling.
Fueled by those feelings of satisfaction, Ashley and Lisa say they plan to keep volunteering, but what happens when they eventually decide to step aside? Zabel, who is relatively new to her job, doesn’t like to entertain that thought.
“We’ll find someone,” she said with a nervous laugh. “But when the time comes, I’ll probably have a breakdown. I’m not going to focus on that now. Things are great and I’m sure someone will step in.”
To donate to the Minnesota Security Hospital holiday gift program, call 507-985-2249.