Vernon and Kussin
Three years ago, a generous patient donated $10,000 to Dr. Dennis Kussin (R) who, along with administrative assistant Catherine Vernon, used the funds to provide grocery gift cards to their neediest patients during the holidays. The team hopes to keep the tradition alive through the Holiday Season Grocery Gift Card Campaign. (Photo: UHN)

As the holidays approach, many people have the luxury of getting caught up in the hub bub and excitement of the season.

But for some, the holidays only magnify what was already a difficult struggle: putting food on the table.

No one knows this more than Dr. Dennis Kussin, a psychiatrist with the UHN Centre for Mental Health's Community Mental Health and Addictions Program based at Toronto Western Hospital (TW). Many patients in his practice and across the department rely on a combination of different means to get by.

"Unfortunately, it's a fact that poverty is a big part of any chronic illness and particularly chronic mental illness because patients can't work," he says. "In addition to being ill, there is a lot of stress for survival."

Food is a big issue when it comes to poverty – not only the quantity but the quality. Many patients are reliant on food banks, which have a limit as to how often clients can visit, and tend to carry food that, though non-perishable, is mostly carbohydrate and not always good for patients who have other illnesses such as diabetes. Protein is hard to come by.

That's why, when a former patient made a generous donation to Dr. Kussin through the Toronto General and Western Hospital Foundation's Honour Your Hero Program in 2015, the program's administrative assistant Catherine Vernon had a great idea with what to do with it.

"We thought we could put the money to good use and provide grocery gift cards during the holidays to our patients who were most in need," she says. "Giving a gift card was a safe way to provide the funds to patients while still leaving them choice of where to shop and normalizing the simple task of grocery shopping for people who often rely on food banks."

Still about $4,200 short of fundraising goal

For the past three years, the fund went a long way to spread some much needed holiday cheer. Dr. Kussin and Catherine were able to give out 100 grocery gifts cards per year of $50 each to their patients who were most in need: living with chronic mental illness, accessing social assistance and some with children.

They also reached out to colleagues in the Asian Initiative in Mental Health (AIM) and the Portuguese Mental Health and Addictions Services to see if any of their patients could benefit from the cards – which there were.

"Patients were so grateful for cards," says Dr. Kussin. "Though they never complained or made it obvious to us about not having the food, they were so thankful to staff to receive a card.

"It gave them hope."

But this year, the team isn't sure they'll be able to provide the grocery gift cards as the fund has almost run out.

So that's why they are calling out to all UHN staff to help replenish the fund to support some of our most fragile patients and make grocery gift cards a holiday tradition.

Staff, and anyone looking for a worthy cause during the season of giving, can make a donation to the Holiday Season Grocery Gift Card Fund [Editor's Note: Link is no longer available]. The campaign for this year's fund runs until Dec. 14. Tax receipts will be made available by the TG&WH Foundation for donations of $20 or more.

"We're about $4,200 short of the minimum we need to secure grocery gift cards through the community program we've been using to date," says Catherine. "This small token means so much to our patients, the need is definitely there."

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