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Georgia communities bring holiday cheer to psychiatric hospitals

November 24, 2008
by David Raths
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In 1958, then Georgia First Lady Betty Vandiver visited Milledgeville State Hospital and was inspired to think of ways to improve the lives of people living there.

That year Mrs. Vandiver and her husband, Gov. Ernest Vandiver, helped launch an effort by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and its member cities to create the Mayors’ Christmas Motorcade, which brings the joy of the holidays and donated gifts to people at Georgia’s seven regional mental health and developmental disability facilities.

Fifty years later, Mrs. Vandiver is returning to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville for this December’s Motorcade.

“Mrs. Vandiver planted the seed, so it’s very nice that she can come see what has grown from her efforts,” says Billy Trapnell, mayor of Metter, Georgia, and chairman of the 2008 Motorcade.

Although GMA can’t put a dollar amount on the donations, 90 cities participate to help approximately 3,200 patients statewide. GMA added two statewide fund-raising events this year: a silent auction that raised $7,500 and a charity golf event that raised $20,500.

Santa helps city officials unload a truck of donated items at the Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville, Georgia, during a past Mayors’ Christmas Motorcade. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Municipal Association

Amy Henderson, GMA’s public information manager, says the cities are very committed to the program, and there has been no drop-off in donations despite the difficult economic situation.

The fund-raising goes on all year, she adds, and city workers especially enjoy the day of the motorcade, when cities hold parades on the hospitals’ grounds and put on seasonal programs.

“They see these people as members of their community who are just removed,” Henderson explains. “The clients are excited because they are practicing social skills, and this gives them a chance to use them.”

Each year people from Metter attend a celebration at the Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah. Employees of cities in the region meet at the National Guard Armory and form a parade for the half-mile trip to the hospital. Patients are presented with gifts, including baseball caps, board games, cards, cosmetics, pens/pencils and stationery, small radios, top-40 tapes/CDs, wallets, and watches. The event also features a Christmas program with a choir.

“It is quite a day,” Trapnell says, “and it is truly heartwarming.”

David Raths is a freelance writer.