Christmas where it's needed

By Ed Brock

For at least a few moments on Thursday the young patients at Riverwoods Psychiatric Center were able to lay down their troubles, pick up some new toys and play.

The children in the unit for patients ages 6 to 12 were the first beneficiaries of Clayton County 911's "Dollars for Dreams" Christmas program. Dispatchers, trainees and administrators in the department have been saving up all year to buy the wagon load of toys that they brought to the center on Thursday, said Terri Edmonson, director of public education and community outreach for the Clayton County Community Center.

"It was the brainchild of one of our senior dispatchers," Edmonson said.

That senior dispatcher, Wanda Williams, originally wanted to donate red wagons to a children's oncology center in the area, Edmonson said. However, after asking around they discovered that there was no such cancer treatment center in Clayton County with a need.

So, wanting to keep the program local, they got together and picked a recipient. Then Edmonson went shopping at the Wal-Mart in Stockbridge and brought back a bounty of games, dolls, balls and toys.

"We were able to raise $400 this year," Edmonson said. "Hopefully we'll raise even more next year."

Located behind Southern Regional Medical Center, Riverwoods is a private, not for profit hospital that provides service for patients of all ages. The children in the unit suffer from varying mental illnesses or developmental disorders, said Riverwoods director Eddie Waldrop.

"A lot of times they come from difficult family situations," Waldrop said.

The new toys would do a world of good for the children, said mental health worker Ernest Johnson as he took a break from tossing a football with one child.

"A lot of them, they don't have anything at home," Johnson said. "We needed this because our toys were getting kind of low. This brought smiles to everybody's faces."

Johnson said some of the nicer toys could also be used as awards for patients who reach a "gold level" on the unit's system that encourages participation in the program. Under the system the patients get points for good behavior and participating in therapy sessions. If they maintain 80 points for two days they reach the gold level and are therefore rewarded, perhaps with access to the Sony "Gameboy" video game system.

"They'll see that and say OK, I've got to earn that," Johnson said.

And Johnson was personally looking forward to playing "Connect Four" with the children. One of them, a 6-year-old boy, seemed ready.

"I used to play it with my cousin," the boy said.

Edmonson and the other women who came to deliver the toys began with a brief lesson on when and why to call 911.

"We're just people, so never be afraid to call us, even if you make a mistake," Edmonson said.

Then they spent some time helping the children break in the new toys.

"I really enjoyed it. Christmas is all about kids," said Beverly McMichen, an administrator with the communications center. "It makes us happy, it makes us feel good."