By Alan Sorensen
WARM SPRINGS -- Santa Claus may be extra busy the world over during the late night and early morning hours of Dec. 24 and 25. But no amount of work can keep him from making a special stop at Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs.
And to lend him a hand on his arrival are three 1970s graduates of Northern Montana College, now known as MSU-Northern.
The three former Lights are Santa's number one helper Dave Cassan and Henry Hislop and Ray McMillan.
Hislop will mark his 29th anniversary as a vocational therapist in March. McMillan, administrative team leader for the acute care and forensic units at the hospital, will mark his 26th anniversary in March, and Recreational Therapist Cassan will mark his 26th year in June.
"Henry talked me into coming down and I talked Dave into coming down," McMillan said about how the three Havre collegians ended up at the state hospital in the Deer Lodge Valley.
"I was the only smart one in the bunch," Cassan said in joking reference to his refusal to encourage anyone else from Northern to join them.
Hislop's job is to help clients learn job skills and to help them get jobs on the outside upon their release. Besides teaching automotive and vocational skills, Hislop teaches patients life skills.
"Our goal is to get them jobs in the community and teach them employability skills -- to get to work on time, hygiene, to dress right, how to act in an interview."
Hislop was on staff when Alan Arkin's movie "The Other Side of Hell" was produced at the hospital.
Cassan, who also serves as a music therapist, is concerned primarily with teaching patients leisure skills and other everyday skills, including shopping.
"We teach skills like social skills, leisure skills, relaxation training, weight groups, aerobics, table games, open recreation-types of things, team sports."
The hospital also holds a dance each month and has special talent shows and other activities throughout the year.
The entire rehabilitation staff, including Hislop, Cassan and McMillan, spent all day Wednesday caroling across the hospital campus.
Cassan also has coordinated the Gifts With a Lift program at Warm Springs since 1980. Started in 1951 by the Butte Women's Club, the project was later adopted by three different groups: the hospital, Board of Visitors (a state advocacy group to oversee patients' rights), and the Montana Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
The program solicits gifts from across the state throughout the year. There are drop zones and pick-up sites all over the state that hospital staff visit to collect the gifts. Gifts and cash donations can also be sent in care of Cassan, General Delivery, Warm Springs, MT 59756.
Cassan and others spend a lot of time getting the gifts ready for the patients by Christmas Eve. He stressed, though, that there is continuing need throughout the year for presents and prizes for patients.
Now is the perfect time to start shopping for a gift for a state hospital patient for next Christmas.