Some people are lucky to finally find their calling, even if it is late in life, and step out of the black and white and into the rainbow of possibilities that existence has to offer. Some people are luckier still to use that calling to help others. Trisha Gallagher is one of those twice blessed people.
“When you’re a certain type of person you just say God doesn’t have a ledger or a balance sheet. You just do (your calling) because you like doing it.”
Gallagher is certainly that type of person, a woman whose presence is a blast of earthly colors in the otherwise gray environments she visits. She runs an organization called Stories for Seniors, which gives stuffed animals and hand-made blankets, along with items created and donated by volunteers such as bubbles and paper corsages, to residents in senior facilities, hospices and veterans hospitals.
“I think my mission is to lift the spirits of all the people that I see in the nursing homes,” Gallagher, 59, says. “Because I really think if, all of a sudden, I was thrust into a new situation, new people, not my own bathroom, not my own shampoo, not my own choices… there’s more depression in nursing homes, I really think, than anywhere else.”
The King of Prussia native and mother of four took a circuitous route to the helping field; she originally attended Villanova with the intention to become a teacher; she instead got an MBA in finance, which she never used. “To tell you the truth I don’t think I know a debit from a credit.”
The many who are thrust into those new situations are likely glad that Gallagher forgot about debits, and today she counts among her credits those to which she brings smiles, joy, and a bit of hope.
The program officially began December 1, 2009, but for the year and a half prior Gallagher and her sister would go to nursing homes and play music for the residents. She would also hand out her “Team of Angel” pins, created to inspire, in conjunction with Gallagher’s poetry, those in spiritual need. She estimates she’s been to 75 different locations over this time period.
The transformative moment for Gallagher came as an empty nester. “I’m feeling lonely,” Gallagher remembers, “and then I said who else feels lonely?” She thought back to her Aunt Mary, who she remembers being in a nursing home, as an example of someone else who felt those same emotions.
Something told her to go to the dollar store. She bought twelve copies each of “Twas the Night before Christmas” and “The Gift of the Magi”. She felt compelled to go to a nursing home and be of comfort during the holidays. She found two facilities online at random.
Gallagher asked if they wanted someone to come and read to the residents. They asked what organization she represented. “I said Stories for Seniors,” she explains about the name she made up on the spot. They told her to come down the next day.
“At the time, it was my need,” Gallagher says about the humble beginning. And it was good for the residents as well. “You’re not with your family, and you’re always waiting.” And, thanks to Gallagher, the residents finally had one less thing for which to wait – comfort.
Gallagher’s life is not without its own series of turns. She co-authored a book titled “No More Secrets – A Family Speaks About Depression, Anxiety and Attempted Suicide” with her ex-husband, which chronicled his difficulties with these demons. This brought attention from sources like The Dr. Phil Show and People magazine.
In the end, Gallagher gave up her advocacy campaign in order to avoid the unwanted attention to her children. The $20,000 tied up in books, CDs and tapes was now gone, and Gallagher went on speaking assignments and gave away most of it for free.
She’s also given away approximately 75,000 angel pins since 1999, including 6,000 to wounded U.S. Troops, some of them at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Magazine articles and television appearances gave the pins notoriety, and Gallagher says that “people would hear about it and they’d send me letters saying ‘can I have a hundred for the parents of murdered children.’” She’s also given scores of pins to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D). Gallagher’s received 30,000 separate letters for requests for pins to date.
“It gave me great joy to do that, but it came at a financial expense,” she says. Originally Gallagher even intended for the stuffed animals and other items to be props, however when she went to retrieve them from the residents, no one wanted to give them up. So now she depends on her own funds along with donations to keep the project afloat.
Gallagher describes the program as it exists now as more of a reminiscence project. She does things like ask thought-provoking questions, along with handing out memorabilia to get the residents stimulated and into conversation. And she tailors the program to the group she’s visiting. For example, if she knows in advance she’s visiting a particularly spiritual group Gallagher will gear the music – and the questions – towards that subject. At the end of the program, she might suggest that they say a prayer for those who may need it the most.
“It really just looks like a pretty sad group,” she says about the moment the residents are wheeled in. “Heads are down.” Then Gallagher goes in – and goes on. And the colorful paper corsages and stuffed animals begin to work their magic.
“They’re interacting,” Gallagher says. “They light up.”
Some of the stories are as heartwarming as they are heartbreaking. During a visit, Gallagher asked an elderly patient why she picked a giraffe for her stuffed animal. The woman told her that when she was a little girl she was scared to go to the first grade. She refused to go for three days, until finally her father told her that if she went, he would take her to the zoo. And the first animal she saw when she got there was a giraffe.
“It helps them, and it helps me, so I guess there’s just a good relationship there.”
The toughest group Gallagher deals with is dementia patients. “But they’re going to hold that stuffed animal, and they’ll have a memory of when they were in foster care and they had a stuffed animal.” Even the tough groups bring gratification. Gallagher says she feels high after a good program – “as high as my first date on that hayride at Upper Merion High School” – when she was fourteen.
Gallagher credits her father “who gave and gave and gave”, for her magnanimous nature, even though her father warned her “not to be like him.” She also credits the teacher in her for her ability to conduct the program – that, and a particular calling.
“I look into each one’s eyes and I just pretend they’re my Aunt Mary. Or I pretend they’re me, or someone in my family, because we could trip. We could fall down the steps, in a heartbeat, and we would be right there.”
Gallagher has 30 unsolicited testimonials on her website, evidence of the program’s ability to touch people. One facility director recently sent Gallagher a note saying that everyone at her facility was involved and engaged at a recent event – even those who are not normally responsive. And at a recent program at a veterans’ home, the residents – who are usually in bed by 6:30 p.m. – watched Gone with the Wind, and stayed up until 1:00 am to find out the ending of the movie.
And one veteran capped Gallagher’s evening by telling her “if you can make an old man like me smile…”
The smiles, however, may be in jeopardy. Though she’s received donations from as far away as Colorado, and recently collected 750 stuffed animals through a synagogue in Yardley, along with another 450 from an individual – Gallagher estimates that in a recent week she spent $115 of her own money on gas.
“For the past two years that I’ve been doing this I’ve used my own funds. Occasionally people pay a small amount… but nothing’s ever covered everything.”
She can no longer use her van because she cannot afford to make the payments and keep it insured. She also needs a laptop computer. But more than this she needs a partner who can offer financial backing. A partner she hopes would consider it “a legacy” to a loved one who was once in a senior facility and who would be willing to “be in a conversation about how to take this to the next level.”
“I won’t be able to continue it… unless some miracle happens.” In other words, Gallagher’s looking for her own angel. Still, she is grateful for the hundreds of people that have helped her over the past two years. “I would almost like to have a party (for them).”
Gallagher is quick to point out that every success story has sprung from solitary beginnings. “Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving – that was one mother.” And she believes the mission crosses all economic boundaries, noting that even the elderly in the more expensive facilities “are the same in their receptiveness to stuffed animals.”
When asked why she thinks she doesn’t receive more support than she does, Gallagher says she realizes that others might be wary of her motives. “It’s not like I’m the American Red Cross or the Cancer Society.”
What would she say to someone who’s confused about how to dive in and help? “Pick something that you care about.” Since Gallagher will always care about her Aunt Mary, and those like her, she gravitates towards helping seniors. “Whatever else is going on in your life, for that hour or hour and a half or whatever it is, really, you just know that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”
“I love what I’m doing, and nothing would make me happier to continue doing what I’m doing as long as I can… I don’t see myself doing anything else.”
Right now, somewhere, there is someone in a senior facility, who’s clutching tight to a teddy bear or a giraffe, who loves what Trisha Gallagher is doing as well.
For more information on Patricia “Trisha” Gallagher and Stories for Seniors, please visit http://www.patriciausa.com and http://www.storiesforseniors.wordpress.com . For more information on the Team of Angel pins, please visit http://www.teamofangels.com.