DU Alumni

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 came to DU 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.

“I remember expecting at DU more of the routine praises my poems had elicited in other quarters — and generally being reinforced in that expectation,” McHugh says. “That is, until I got into Burton Feldman’s class.”

Feldman nitpicked her writing, but ultimately it turned out that “Feldman’s were the remarks I found myself always remembering,” she says.

Soon after earning her MA, McHugh was appointed to teach as an assistant professor at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and was entrusted with a program for bringing women writers to campus. After working as a visiting professor and artist-in-residence at various universities across the country, McHugh went on to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she has taught for the past 30 years.

Her first collection of poems was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. 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.

Despite the awards and high praise for her work, McHugh 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 for little Kiri.

“This child will probably never walk or talk; she’ll never see too well; and probably never be able to manipulate a spoon,” McHugh says. “All I could think — after my first burst of utter love for this helpless child — was right now she’s a tiny baby. But 10 years from now these parents are still going to be diapering, and they won’t even be able to lift her any more! 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 organization, CAREGIFTED, was approved as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2012 and, according to McHugh, “has been the education of a lifetime.”

CAREGIFTED 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. “They have concierges, massages, meals in fancy restaurants, chances to walk on the beach, linger in gardens, sleep late, take in movies or concerts, and just reflect or indulge.

“Their heroic sacrifices, and the circumstances of their lifelong devotions, put terrible stress and isolation on them,” she continues. “You can’t imagine the boost they get from just a week away within fine surroundings with nature and art to stimulate their senses.”

 

One Comment

  1. Lacey Den Hartog says:

    As a first year student at DU, I was wondering if you also have a scholarship available. In a way I an a caretaker to my fellow students and a peace maker. As a good listener and a caring person, I would enjoy a scholarship to continue my studies at DU. If you don’t ask you will never know. Thank you, Lacey Den Hartog

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