NAMI Group

Joins Hands with the Cookie Lady to Treat the Troops

    Because she understands the power of giving, Ruth Halpin, employment coach for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Beaufort County, makes a point of arranging regular volunteer opportunities for the organization's consumers. This past August, NAMI joined hands with Jeannette Cram, Hilton Head Island's notorious "Cookie Lady" and founder of Treat the Troops, volunteering their time to provide handmade ornaments and personal letters to be included in holiday packages sent to our soldiers serving in the Middle East.
    According to program assistant, Sarah Kaminskas, who made the initial contact with Jeannette, it's been a "symbiotic" relationship. "She [Jeannette] is happy to have us. And it's been wonderful for our folks who have been coming out every week who normally don't get to do these kinds of projects. So, everyone wins."
    "A lot of our folks don't work, so they could be home watching television. I want them to have interaction with other people," added Ruth. In addition to the socialization, benefits include the awareness of making a difference-being productive-and thus, a greater sense of self-worth, she said.
    In an effort to provide a more meaningful social experience and also to dispel some of the misconceptions about mental illness, Ruth encouraged outside participation from the community. "People have mental illness like others have cancer. It's not the whole person. It is only a part of who that person is," she said. Through the course of the project, at least 10 NAMI consumers, along with family members and friends, immersed themselves in glitter and glue, turning out hundreds of ornaments to send overseas.
    NAMI consumer, Chris Pielli, who made ornaments and also handwrote over 300 letters with varying messages to accompany the Treat the Troops packages, said the project was especially fulfilling for him. "Once you get over that hurdle of not knowing what to write, it's a blessing," he said. "I thank them for their duty. I wish them a Merry Christmas. I try to brighten their day and cheer them up," he said. But guess who's already feeling more cheerful?
    NAMI consumer, Suzanne Darveau, who holds a part time job at Home Goods, demonstrated a special talent, making some of the most creative ornaments of all. Seemingly unsure of herself, but bubbling over with enthusiasm, she said, "This is the only thing I can do to make it happier for the soldiers." She, too, is finding her own happiness by reaching out to help someone else.
    And then there was project mascot, Buddy, sharing the love in his own special way. The abandoned/rescued Bish-Poo is being trained as a therapy dog and will be a permanent member of NAMI. "The use of animals in the mental health field is a fairly new concept," explained Suzanne, "but it is being recognized as something that is extremely therapeutic."
    Local artist, Marti Hughes, heard about the project through Ruth and offered to lend some creative assistance. "We've had so many people come in with wonderful ideas, so we've had a variety," she said. "One of my friends sent two boxes full of sweet gum balls and cotton pods. We decorated them with glitter and colorful things, which is wonderful, because it doesn't cost anything."
    Peggy Miller, whose daughter is bipolar, came to give back to the organization that has given her so much. "Being able to talk to other parents who have children with mental disorders has given us a new understanding," said Peggy, who has participated in NAMI's family-to-family course. "It has changed our whole thinking about mental illness. It gave us information and education to be our daughter's advocate. It is a huge, huge help for anyone who is affected," she said. "So any chance I can, I give back through volunteering." Peggy also brought along two friends, VIM volunteers, Marge Garner and Judy Meaney, who were up to their ears in ribbons and beads and having the time of their life.
    These are just a few of the participants who joined in NAMI's effort to send a little seasonal joy to our military forces. "Everybody can do something for the soldiers," said Jeannette, whose organization has sent over a million cookies overseas since its inception in 1990. "It doesn't have to be complicated; it doesn't have to be cookies. (If you don't want to bake, Jeannette suggests donating money for shipping costs.)
    Although the cookie project is year-round, it is especially important to remember the troops at Christmas, said Jeanette, because a lot of times the soldiers don't have anybody. And if they do, sometimes the families can't afford to ship gifts. On November 19, her local group shipped over 250 boxes, including nearly 16,000 cookies, other snacks and comfort items, handmade decorations and, of course, the much-coveted letters.
Now that the NAMI consumers have a taste for philanthropy, they are anxious to give more. "I think all of those who participated felt good about themselves," said Ruth, who is looking for new volunteer projects. If you have suggestions, please contact her at (843) 681-2200.

Up Close

NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families. Their mission is to eradicate mental illnesses and to improve the quality of life for persons of all ages who are affected by mental illnesses. For more information, visit or call the local office at (843) 681-2200.
Treat the Troops is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, all volunteer organization. What began in Jeannette Cram's kitchen has grown to a nationwide network of committed volunteers who have rallied their friends, businesses and school groups to participate and share in the good feeling of supporting our troops. Shipments are sent once a month. To bake cookies, make a financial contribution or for a list of other appropriate items for donation, visit