SYLMAR — The spirit of Christmas rode to the rescue Friday of the patients at a mental health facility whose $5,500 Christmas shopping fund was stolen by strong-arm robbers, with the appalled public pouring in almost five times that amount in gifts.
By late Friday afternoon, the Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Center had received $25,000 in checks, plus pledges to donate security cameras, an all-expenses paid shopping spree at a Target Store and free limousine service to take the patients there, said the center's clinical director, Todd Polk.
"The response has been far beyond what we ever anticipated," Polk said. "I've tried to get a reaction from the administrator, but I can't get her to stop crying."
Throughout the day, goodwill poured in to the privately run center from around the region: There was the offer by a Los Angeles clothing manufacturer to fashion outfits for each of the 205 patients; a police organization challenged other law enforcement agencies to match its $500 gift; and several $5,000 donations were delivered, including one from actress Helen Hunt, star of the NBC-TV comedy series "Mad About You."
At the front entrance to the clinic, a group of employees grinned as bags of toiletries, stuffed animals and other gifts piled up on a table.
Arlene Kordell, a Sherman Oaks travel agent who stopped by the center to drop off a gift during her lunch hour, was moved to tears by the outpouring of generosity.
"These things look better here than in my drawers," Kordell said, her voice breaking with emotion. "The people here already have enough happening in their lives without this."
Friday's euphoria was in marked contrast to the shock at 11 a.m. Thursday when two thugs assaulted an employee in the parking lot of the center in the 12200 block of Foothill Boulevard. The robbers hit Andy Weed, 22, on the head with a blunt instrument and took the cash, police said.
The money--from the patients' Social Security checks Weed had just cashed--was earmarked to take them on a supervised gift-shopping excursion, which the patients look forward to because it is one of the few times each year when they are allowed to leave the locked facility.
Most of the patients were depressed when they were told of the incident, employees said, with some bursting into tears or growing violent in their frustration.
"I went into a fit of rage and felt awful," one dark-haired female patient said Friday. "I wanted to buy clothing and Play-Doh."
Now, it turns out, there will not only be enough money for gifts, but for additional outings, such as taking at least 80 patients on their first trip to either Disneyland or Magic Mountain, said Rodney Inatomi, the center's activities director.
"It's really brightened their world up," Inatomi said. "What turned into a nightmare Christmas is going to be the best holiday ever."