Opening Hearts and Minds
The ticking of a clock from one year to the next can make us all look forward with change in mind. Erla Kristinsdóttir did just this. She made a new year’s resolution for the first time and what she decided involved ribbons, recognition and enriched not just her life but those of hundreds of others.
Erla tells me how it all started one New Year’s Eve. “I read an article by the journalist Erla Hlynsdóttir, who used to work in Kleppur (the psychiatric hospital in Reykjavík), about how some people didn’t get any Christmas presents at all. She described how they were trying to make everyone feel at home at Christmas and how sad it was to watch people with mental illnesses, especially the ones who had been sick for very long, as they basically didn’t have anyone. Also, my younger sister has had depression and has been in Kleppur and so I related to the story. I felt it shouldn’t be like this and I had to do something. So I made this new year’s resolution that for Christmas 2013 everyone in psychiatric wards would get a present. I put it on Facebook, which is how you make things public in Iceland. I got good feedback from my friends and I dived into it.”
Erla laughs in the way that people do when they reflect back on the innocent inception of a project before the work and the learning curve kicks in. As it did.
Something to Make Things Better
They say if you need something done, ask a busy person. Erla Kristinsdóttir fits that bill. She’s completing a Master’s degree in accountancy and auditing, works part time as an accountant, and following a car accident and subsequent surgery, currently attends physiotherapy for a shoulder injury. More than enough to keep her occupied. However, the newspaper article galvanized her into further action.
Since New Year’s Eve 2012 her tenacious efforts have brought people together to champion a cause close to her heart, supporting those with mental health issues. Her new year’s resolution was her response to a situation where she thought she could do something to make things better.
Now she’s just finished taking part for the second year in wrapping 400 presents and delivering them to 33 mental health centers and supported accommodation in the Reykjavík and Akureyri area, heads up a board of five people at Gefðu gjöf sem yljar (‘Give a Gift that Warms’), an association she formed in May on her sister’s birthday in honor of her. What’s more, in 2015, she’s setting her sights on creating new opportunities to support those with mental illnesses.
Erla admits she really didn’t know what she was getting herself into at the beginning. She started calling hospitals and centers which support those with mental health issues in August in 2012 and asked them how many people they thought they would have over the festive season. This groundwork took until December when Erla partnered with staff from Kleppur who guided her and her friends through the process, the logistics and yes, the colossal task of gift wrapping.
In addition to the phone calls and emails, Erla experienced some unexpected road blocks. Some staff at the respective hospitals and centers did not warm to the idea and getting things in place was a slow burn. Erla says, “A lot of them felt it was nonsense. I was told that a lot of people just didn’t like the idea as they thought it would be a lot of hassle. I told them I’m going to do it anyway with anyone who wants to participate. Two days before the gift wrapping last year we still had no support from them but then a couple of members of staff did come along and help us.”
In addition to completing a giant wrapping session, Erla and her colleagues also write descriptions of the gifts. Matching up people and gifts is important and she explains that, “Staff from Kleppur and Hringbraut, a mental health center, came on their own free time to choose the presents for their people, as they know them and what they would like.”
Era continues, “The most work was gift wrapping 350 presents and delivering them. We got way more presents than we expected and we only had one day last year to wrap the gifts. We were there at 10 in the morning and I was home at 7 or 8 in the evening. This is why we had two sessions this year and we had far more people to help us. It was amazing to watch it, it was so efficient.” Erla laughs and it’s now the relived and rewarded sound of someone looking back on the journey of her learning curve.
One of the aims of the project is to support those who feel isolated and alone, especially at Christmas time. And Erla has received warm feedback from individuals who’ve been touched by this support.
“Geðhjálp [‘Mental Help’], an organization that helps those with mental illnesses, celebrated their 35th birthday this year. In October they had a geðmaraþon [‘mental marathon’] in Kringlan shopping mall. People came throughout the whole day and spoke about mental illness and I was asked to come and talk about the project. After that a young woman came up to me and thanked me for the present she got last year and that was like an ‘Okay! It actually meant something.’ I’ve heard from others whose only Christmas present they received was from us. So, it’s necessary to do this. I also received an email from a woman in Kleppur this month. She told me her story and how mental illness is a complete taboo and that if you’ve got cancer you get all the help you need but if you have a mental illness you don’t. In the end she said it doesn’t really matter what the present is she’ll receive but that someone took the time and effort to do this gives her the courage to keep on working and on getting better so that she can give back. That was really nice to receive. I was really happy to get that.”
Christmas Clothes and Company
Erla is optimistic and ambitious about the future. “Now we’re trying to continue to build trust with the staff and that they know who we are, what we’re doing and how we can help. We have that with Kleppur and Hringbraut but not yet with staff at The City of Reykjavík who run the supported accommodation and I hope we can develop that.”
She and her board are also keen to develop other ways of support. “There are people who don’t have nice Christmas clothes and we’d like to help them with that, if we could get some stores to give us a discount. We’d also like to expand the project and not make it just at Christmas as people need support at all times of year. I’d like people to understand how important it is to donate time. A lot of people don’t have anyone and it would be worth a lot to have someone to talk to.”
What has been worth a lot is without doubt Erla’s resolution and her leadership in successfully creating new partnerships to support those with mental illnesses at Christmas time. It’s admirable that at the beginning of another new year with renewed focus and a fresh canvas, Erla is already buzzing with ideas to extend this support.
Perhaps the learning for us all is that change is closer than we may think. Connecting with a purpose or passion can link us to others who share that vision for change. And this is a meaningful way to start off anyone’s New Year.