Kathy Simpson has a heart for those who might not have a friend.
In 2009, Simpson and her friend Cathy Barker asked staff at Palmerston North Hospital's mental health unit if they would like Christmas gifts for the patients.
The staff were quite overcome. "No one ever asks us," they said.
"We asked how many gifts would be needed and they said 25. Cathy and I looked at each other and wondered where on earth we would get 25 gifts. That was 12 years ago. In 2020, we gave out around 5000 gifts. At the end we lost count!"
And so StarLight was born. Star for the star over the manger, since we were giving Christmas gifts, and light for Jesus, light of the world, Simpson says.
They wanted patients to know they are precious to God, and that their community cares. "Often patients who are feeling at rock bottom can feel like they don't matter; that the world would be better off without them. We want to bring joy and hope."
In 1990, Simpson spent time in a now-closed mental health unit after seeking treatment for headaches. ACC later ruled her treatment was medically negligence. She had been a dedicated teacher of gifted children working seven days a week.
In 2010, Simpson was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.
The difference between how she was treated when she had a mental illness and how she was treated with cancer were unbelievable - two ends of the spectrum.
"The difference was kindness. Everyone was so kind when I had cancer, people couldn't do enough for you."
StarLight has given 6000 gift bags in the past year to a range of organisations such as Camellia House, Mana o te Tangata and Just Zilch, plus a diverse group of hospital patients.
In each bag there are 10 items so that's 60,000 items, ranging from toiletries, clothing, and toys to bath bombs, chocolate and magazines.
Packs labelled "craftiness is happiness" are provided for cancer patients. Simpson says when her mother had cancer she did a lot of drawing to take away the pain.
Gifts are donated by churches, service groups, community organisations, schools, businesses and individuals.
Simpson says she and Barker had no intention of starting a charity and StarLight wouldn't be where it is today without the support of Rotary. StarLight's association with Rotary began when David Chapple invited her to speak to the Rotary Club of Awapuni and the club provided a donation for Christmas gifts.
She then met Venky Kannan, now Rotary area governor, who was able to drew on support of Rotary clubs to provide StarLight a storage unit. Simpson was struggling to move around her large house because it was piled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes of items for gift bags.
She had also got to the point where she needed mentoring and has been able to tap into Kannan and Awapuni president Fraser Bell's business contacts. Rotary also provided a website, brochures, labels and exposure through invitations to talk.
StarLight has been brought under Awapuni Charitable Trust, the funding arm of Awapuni Rotary, removing considerable administration work for Simpson and the need to create a separate charitable trust.
Simpson says she had fabulous support from family and friends when she was mentally ill, but was conscious lots of people didn't. When you give somebody a beautiful gift you are giving them dignity, showing them they are valued and cared for, giving them hope.
Having spent Christmases in mental health wards, Simpson says staff try their hardest but have only limited resources. When people become mentally unwell they can experience a sense of worthlessness.
Patients can feel intensely people outside are enjoying themselves and receiving presents. The feeling of hopelessness is pervasive so it is important everyone gets a gift and this can change the whole atmosphere of the ward.
Another focus for StarLight is gifts for pets at Christmas, often a time of financial hardship.
"Pets give unconditional love to those who may not feel loved or lovable, and to those who may be isolated from family and friends. Pets can give the suicidal a reason to keep on keeping on."
Simpson's work was acknowledged at Volunteer Central's 2021 Volunteer Recognition Event.
StarLight now also operates in Wellington and Hawke's Bay, and gifts are distributed year round.
For more information email email@example.com or go to starlightjoy.org.