Holiday Greetings From My Family To Your’s: A Christmas Challenge From Virgil Stucker


“This holiday season; please invite someone with mental illness from the streets into your home. Bring them from the last pew in your congregation into the conversation. Reach out to your neighbor who has a mentally ill child and show them your empathy. Yes, I am serious.” Virgil Stucker

Christmas is Patti’s favorite holiday and she spends hours decorating our house, both inside and out. This year, I was delighted when our homeowner association chose her decorations as the best in the neighborhood. (My photo is embarrassingly bad.) I am grateful for her boundless holiday spirit and that we are fortunate enough to have such a lovely home. Both of us want to extend our best wishes to you during this holiday season. We hope you will enjoy great mental health this coming year and remember others who have a mental illness, especially those who are in our jails, prisons, in hospitals and homeless on our streets.

Virgil Stucker, who contributes to my blog occasionally, recently wrote a Christmas   letter to his friend, Dr. Allen J. Frances, at the Huffington Post about the season and “society’s castaways.” I want to share it with you. Virgil writes:

“I have lived most of the last 40 years in nonprofit healing communities with people who are diagnosed with mental illness. My family and I often walk with, dine with, socialize with, work with, and play with people who too often are treated as society’s castaways. 

Over these years, my wife Lis and I have had several thousand such people join us at our daily table. We, along with my parents, our four children, their spouses and partners, and our seven grandchildren are fortunate to have formed lifelong friendships and had life-altering experiences living in healing communities.   

We know first-hand that people with mental illness are much more human than otherwise; trusting and loving human beings, if only given the chance and offered the social context. 

There are so many moments that have graced our lives with special meaning. I remember with great relief and gratitude when our young son Christoph wandered into a brook and was about to drown until he was saved by Franko, a member of our community. 

My wife was in the Gould Farm weaving studio when news came to James that his sister had died on the Pan Am 103 flight, blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie. His deeply human experience of loss cemented our relationship with James, who went on to found a statewide recovery program in Virginia and became a peer support specialist for a prestigious hospital. He was at our table for lunch recently, remembering with sadness that moment and with fondness our lifetime relationship. 

Elaine joined as a resident 8 years ago in our CooperRiis Healing Community. The combination of addiction and mental illness had derailed her. Three years ago, she came back… and is now our Marketing Director (actually our whole marketing department). I get to speak daily with her about her passion for helping others to recover normal lives despite their ‘severe mental illness’. (Here’s a letter she recently wrote about her story: ( 

Just yesterday, Dan, who came to our Gould Farm community in 1977 with schizophrenia called to wish us a Merry Christmas. He still has schizophrenia, but is living an independent life, now retired in Florida. We love to catch up with many old friends in this way during the holidays. 

After the call, I turned to speak with Emelia who has become a member of our ‘family’ and is about to return to her career as a well-known artist. 

She joined us in church last week where Ralph, a former resident sings in the choir. Ralph now lives independently in our small town, working and owning his own condo. Years ago, his family came to us with hope; hope that there was more than the dead-end group home that the mental health ‘system’ had prescribed for him. 

Thinking of music, I am reminded of Jason DeShaw, a well-known country singer, who recently spent three days at our ‘table’. His story will encourage you: 

I am but one person, and my family but one family. We have been blessed to know and be inspired by many people with mental illness. Over the years, this blessing has also included walking with parents, who have turned their anguish about the mental illness of a family member into action. We are daily inspired by Don and Lisbeth Cooper, the founding philanthropists of the CooperRiis Healing Community. We have also walked with philanthropists Dan and Rosemary Kelly of Rose Hill Center, Carol and William Moore of Gateway Homes, and, spiritually, with Will and Agnes Gould who founded Gould Farm in 1913. My own parents Robert and Florence Stucker (97 and 86 at this point) also brought their gifts of gentleness and kindness into these healing communities as decade-long volunteers.  All of these families know the healing power of community and relationship. 

You, too, as an individual and as a family, can begin to create a healing community, right where you are, right now. Here is a 3-minute video about our CooperRiis Healing Community that may inspire you. ( 

From Muslims to Minorities, from Military Vets to the Mentally Ill, our fears have too often surrounded us with ‘Others’… Others who Matter only because we are afraid of them!  Goodness, let’s cross these divides with compassionate dialogue and listening, not labeling! When we bring our prejudices to the table, we see only the ‘other’, the sick person. We don’t see the human being, only a small part of whom is ‘sick’. Our lives are diminished whenever we are exclusionary and close-minded. Our lives are enriched when we enrich the lives of others. 

This holiday season; please invite someone with mental illness from the streets into your home. Bring them from the last pew in your congregation into the conversation. Reach out to your neighbor who has a mentally ill child and show them your empathy. Yes, I am serious. The only real solution is to restore healing community to every street. Think of every street as 34th Street ready to have a Miracle. Let’s pull one another out of the darkness. 

The time to start is right now. Reach out now and create compassionate conversations with individuals coping with mental health conditions. Your life and theirs will be better for it. You will discover the depth of your own humanity, not just theirs.”

Virgil Stucker

Executive Director

Call or text: 828.899.4673

Skype: cooperriis.virgil

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.