DU Alumni / Magazine Feature

Prizewinning poet turns attention to helping caregivers

Poet Heather McHugh is the founder of CAREGIFTED, a nonprofit that awards getaways to the caregivers of people who can’t care for themselves. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Poet Heather McHugh is the founder of CAREGIFTED, a nonprofit that awards getaways to the caregivers of people who can’t care for themselves. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Heather McHugh (MA ’73) has run the gamut since her days at the University of Denver. She is a respected poet with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” to her name, a professor at the University of Washington, and the executive director of CAREGIFTED, a nonprofit committed to the well-being of caregivers around the country.

McHugh — whose first collection of poems was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977 — eventually found herself in a dry spell as a writer. On top of that, in 2011 her godson’s first child was born with severe neurological challenges. This changed the child’s parents’ lives overnight, forcing them to leave their much-loved jobs abroad and come back to the U.S. to find the best possible services and therapies.

“All I could think — after my first burst of utter love for this helpless child — was right now, she’s a tiny baby,” McHugh says. “But 10 years from now, these parents are still going to be diapering, and they won’t even be able to lift her anymore. They are going to be exhausted.”

Suddenly, she knew who did deserve a break: “Every caregiver in this country who is isolated, inundated and ignored; all those women and men who, in their 40s and 50s and 60s, will still be diapering someone, and feeding, and carrying and protecting them at the expense of their own resources — emotional and financial — for the rest of their lives.”

McHugh set out to see if she could help bring some respite to caregivers who have been doing the primary care for severely disabled family members for at least a decade. Her Seattle-based organization, CAREGIFTED, founded in 2012, has awarded more than a dozen getaways to the caregivers of people who can’t care for themselves. “We whisk them away to beautiful island or vineyard settings and treat them like royalty for once in their lives,” McHugh says. “You can’t imagine the boost they get from just a week away within fine surroundings with nature and art to stimulate their senses.”

Caregivers whom CAREGIFTED has helped share their stories on the organization’s website, where one woman recently wrote of “feeling free, relaxed, peaceful, youthful, energized, [and] in a way, renewed” during a recent getaway.

McHugh came to the University of Denver in 1970 to pursue a graduate degree in English, having already published poems in The New Yorker and other major magazines while an undergraduate at Harvard. Since then, she has published several acclaimed collections, including “Eyeshot” (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and “Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968–1993” (Wesleyan, 1994), a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.

McHugh has been honored for her work with various prizes, including a 2009 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2006, one of the first United States Artists awards.

 

2 Comments

  1. Morgan Ray says:

    Congratulations on this fine and much needed service.
    All the Best,
    Morgan

  2. Lyn Coffin says:

    My website is lyncoffin.com- I have an idea. I have a one bedroom apartment near discovery park (I’ve made another bedroom out of what used to be the dining room) Each bedroom has its own balcony. It’s a very beautiful quiet street. Perhaps someone would like to stay here while I’m gone this summer. (I have a complicated schedule.) At any rate, I am grateful for Heather McHugh, for her poetry (which I recognized way back when in a Michigan Quarterly Review) and her compassionate heart. Please email me or leave a message at my website if you’re interested. And download my story- amazon.com Enter Counting the Wounds in the search bar. (Great Cascadia reading)

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