by Atty. Lara Nicole Gonzales

Christmas has always been special to Filipinos, both for the Christian essence of the celebration and also for the festive atmosphere it creates. It is that time of the year when Filipinos from everywhere usually visit their relatives and friends to have reunions and get-togethers. Christmas is always the perfect excuse for everyone to gather and be with each other despite their busy schedules. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck countries all over the world, we all had to make adjustments for our Christmas celebrations. 

For Universitas Foundation, Christmas season is always a time to share, and this is done specifically through its annual outreach project entitled “Sharing Love to Every Indigent through Gifts and Happenings” or “SLEIGH.” During this time of the year, the volunteers of Universitas usually visit and give gifts to members of a specific beneficiary community. The point of the project is to give some form of assistance to the locals, as much as to let the volunteers personally encounter the people and experience a little fraction of what the community is going through. 

However, due to the threats posed by the pandemic, Universitas decided to execute SLEIGH in a different way. During this time when all of us are facing difficulties, financially, physically, emotionally and mentally, the people behind the Foundation reflected on the essence of SLEIGH. With the pandemic putting all sectors of our society without exception on the line, what does it truly mean to share love to every indigent?

The SLEIGH 2020 team decided to hold a two-day outreach event that sought to help those who have mental health difficulties. On the first day, December 5, 2020, gifts were given to the resident clients of Sanctuary Center, a government-run institution housing abandoned women with improved mental conditions, in Mandaluyong City. On the second day, December 12, 2020, a mental health awareness webinar was hosted by the Foundation, so that more people will be aware of the difficulties those with mental health conditions are facing. With this SLEIGH format for 2020, Universitas hopes that more people would be able to somehow understand and respond to the needs of those with mental health struggles.

Gift Giving to Sanctuary Center

With the help of Universitas’ patrons and in partnership with Universitas Lawyers Quarterly and Universitas Doctors Forum, SLEIGH was able to raise funds to give Two Hundred Twenty-Five (225) pillows and Five Hundred (500) face shields to the abandoned women and mental health care workers of Sanctuary Center. 

SLEIGH 2020 Project Manager Atty. Lara Gonzales conversing with Ms. Clarisse Valenzuela of Sanctuary Center

Clarisse Valenzuela, the psychometrician who welcomed the SLEIGH team to Sanctuary Center, mentioned that their residents would surely appreciate the gifts brought, not really because of the material value of the gifts, but because someone remembered them. She mentioned that in this time of pandemic, the residents of Sanctuary who were abandoned by their families, drawing hope and joy from those visiting them, were wondering when the visitors would come. This conversation made us realize that while it is true that these women residents were neither suffering from COVID infection nor were dying of hunger, they were suffering nonetheless, both from their mental health conditions and from their alienation from their families.

During our visit to Sanctuary, we realized that it is difficult enough to battle mental problems without one’s family, but the pandemic made it even more difficult for these women, when it isolated them and prevented visitors from extending to them their warm presence and care.

Mental Health Awareness Webinar

A week after the gift giving at Sanctuary Center, as part of SLEIGH, a free mental health awareness webinar was hosted by Unversitas, which was attended by at least forty-one participants. Dr. Marissa Nicasio, a licensed counselor, was the speaker for the talk.

During the talk, Dr. Nicasio discussed sanctuary and solitude during the pandemic and being comfortable with ourselves in these times. She talked about the mental and emotional challenges most of us are experiencing with isolation imposed upon us, including social and self-stigma related to the pandemic which can cause mental problems. Research-based psychological causes of mental health problems especially during this time were also explained in the talk, which helped the participants understand the effects that the pandemic has on our psychological well-being.

The webinar’s objective was to spread awareness on mental health problems more so now that we are in isolation, so that when we are experiencing mental health problems or when we have someone we know who is facing the same, we will be able to empathize with and listen to them. The area of mental health is relatively new and unfamiliar to many of us, hence, learning a little bit more about it through talks such as this is one step towards being able to support or at least empathize with those who experience mental health struggles.

Some may think that to share love to every indigent during this pandemic is extremely difficult. However, from the point of view of Universitas, it is actually easier than one can imagine. In helping our society, in sharing love to one another, we need not expose ourselves to COVID-19. There are more ways than one to support each other. Even during this pandemic, we can still express our concern for others and lend them a listening ear, through whatever means we can. After all, sharing joy, peace and compassion is a priceless gift one can offer.

Participants of the Mental Health Awareness Webinar pose for a group photo with speaker Dr. Nicasio (top row, leftmost)

NOTA BENE: The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and the speakers mentioned in the article, and not necessarily to the Foundation.