Yale team’s holiday goodwill adds sparkle for local families

For members of one unit in the School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, the highlight of their annual holiday party is the time they share wrapping presents.

That’s when they see — as a group — the results of their weeks of shopping individually, all with the goal of making one or two New Haven area families feel some joy on Christmas day.

For the past 17 years, members of the Psychotherapy Development Center — a research unit led by psychiatry professor Kathleen M. Carroll focused on substance abuse treatment and addiction — have devoted time at their holiday party to wrapping gifts for donation to a family which likely would not have much of a Christmas celebration otherwise.

The research team works with the non-profit Christian Community Action (CCA) to identify a family in need, often one staying in transitional housing owned by the service agency. The family provides a “wish list” of wanted items, and the Yale staff members purchase items on the list, sometimes going above and beyond in meeting the family’s needs.

“Our team used to give each other little gifts such as coffee mugs for the holidays,” says Joanne Corvino, a research associate in the Psychotherapy Development Center. “Back then, there was a fairly small core group of us, but over time our unit grew. Kathy [Carroll], our principal investigator, suggested that we look into doing something more charitable in place of our gift-giving to each other.”

For a few years, the group had a holiday lunch at the New Haven restaurant Christopher Martin’s, and donated gifts to the venue’s toy drive. Another year, the team hosted a Thanksgiving food drive for a local charity, and learned about the 45-year-old CCA and its family wish lists, according to Charla Nich, a statistician in the Psychotherapy Development Center. The research team’s tradition of “adopting” a family or two at Christmas was born soon after.

For Corvino, the idea of helping out a family that has fallen on challenging times was especially poignant personally.

“Nineteen years ago, my husband and I experienced a devastating house fire in which we lost everything, including one of our two cats. My generous colleagues rallied to help out, contributing clothing and other items. I’ll never forget the bathrobe that was among their gifts: It was one of those seemingly simple gifts that just meant everything in the world to receive at such a time.”

That lasting memory inspires Corvino to donate warm, soothing or particularly comfortable items to the holiday gift stash each year.

The families that the research team has shopped for have experienced a range of hardships, and — with the exception of pots and pans and educational toys, which are nearly always on family wish lists — have a variety of holiday hopes.

“One time, we had a single mother with many children who had just gotten her first apartment after staying in an emergency shelter that CCA oversees,” says Nich, who notes that CCA was originally founded to help a family which, like Corvino, experienced a house fire. “She was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and had a hard time making ends meet. Another time, we had a single mother with four teenagers. Each of the kids wanted black jeans and black sweatshirts. It wasn’t as fun shopping for that family, but it felt great to leave the gifts near the 12-inch Christmas tree in the barren living room.”

This year, the Yale team is buying gifts for two families: a single mother and her five children and another single mother with three children. Collectively, the children range in age from 6 to 18.

“One mother asked for ‘funky’ socks,” says Corvino. “We’re not exactly sure what ‘funky’ means to her, but some of us have had fun buying what we think of as ‘funky’ socks.”

A set of dishes, a coffee maker, Hello Kitty pajamas, a winter coat, and a complete bedding ensemble for a teenaged girl (in turquoise, as was her wish) are among the gifts that the staff members have donated so far. Grocery store gift cards are also a popular offering for the team members.

For the group, the holiday party gathering is a time when all of the contributors feel satisfaction in knowing that they have helped make a family or two experience some holiday joy, say Corvino and Nich. Many of the researchers invite their children to the party to enjoy the festivities and help out with the gift-wrapping. Corvino and her two now-teenaged children later deliver the holiday offerings to the families — scheduling the visit when the family’s children are not at home, so that they will be surprised on Christmas day. All of the gifts are signed “From Santa.”

“My kids have been doing this since they were very young, and I’m happy that the spirit of giving has rubbed off on them,” Corvino says. “Now, in addition to helping out with our holiday drive, they also volunteer at a soup kitchen and perform other community service.”

Having experienced major loss in the house fire, Corvino says that she is keenly aware that she — and any of her colleagues — could someday find themselves in need of others’ goodwill.

“For me, our gift giving is never an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation,” she says. “I think we all realize that just one circumstance or event could change our own lives and create challenges similar to the families whom we have helped.”

Adds Nich, “Our relationship with CCA doesn’t end at Christmas. Over the years, we have gotten calls saying, ‘We have 75 school-aged kids — and we need backpacks and school supplies for them,’ or ‘We have 42 kids under the age of 12 and we wondered if you guys could help us put together Easter baskets for them.’ Each and every time we get a call, the Psychotherapy Development Center bands together and produces whatever it takes. Our group cannot fix the problems of society, but if we can keep a sparkle in a kid’s eyes for one day longer, keep the magic of Santa or the Easter bunny alive for one more season, we can all sleep a little better.”

The Yale team isn’t always able to keep in touch with the families they have “adopted” after the holidays, but Corvino and her colleagues believe their own goodwill often has a ripple effect.

“We are doing just one tiny gesture to help a family get back on its feet,” she says. “Whether that takes a short time or five years doesn’t really matter. Those families to which we’ve brought some holiday cheer may one day do the same for another family. When you are the recipient of overwhelming kindness, how do you not want to someday pass that on to someone else?”