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Gnomes Away From Home: A Community Mental Health & Wellness Occupational Therapy Project


Gnomes Away From Home is a project partially funded by the City of Gig Harbor Arts Commission 2021 Creative Endeavor Grant. It aims to foster community wellness by enacting a treasure hunt and participatory storytelling inclusive of people of all ages and ability levels. It spans the City of Gig Harbor and surrounding areas, but everyone is invited to participate regardless of where they live. The project serves multiple purposes: to foster wellbeing through play and imagination, increase participation in the recreational, arts and opportunities Gig Harbor and the surrounding communities have to offer, and to build community and support local business.

Project Outline

Twenty small named garden gnome statuettes (approximately 3” tall) will be hidden in area parks for people to locate as a spin on a treasure hunt, four at a time. When people find the gnomes, they also discover a name attached to the gnome, which they can use to identify the gnome and then redeem it for a gift certificate to an area business. Additionally, eight (plastic) gold medallions will be hidden in downtown Gig Harbor, each bearing one word from a riddle to be solved. Each individual medallion will be also be redeemable for a gift certificate. Whoever correctly guesses the entire phrase first will also win a gift certificate (and anyone can participate in solving the riddle regardless of whether or not they locate a medallion).

Essentially, there will be 28 treasure-hunts and a total of 29 chances to win. A website ( offers clues about the location of each gnome, the progress of the hunt(s), selfies from successful hunters and trivia and stories which help people enjoy the search. Each of the separate gnomes are numbered on the website as they are hidden to make it easier for people to keep track of the clues.

Upon locating a gnome or a medallion, the lucky searcher may take an optional “selfie” with it, fill out a form with their name and address (all contact information is kept confidential unless permission is granted to publicize it). Then they receive a mailed gift certificate for an area business and a letter “from a gnome away from home” thanking the receiver for the “rescue.” The treasure hunt is publicized on the Gnomes Away From website as well as “missing gnome” posters placed in locations around Gig Harbor and other social media apps such as Nextdoor and Facebook. Each winner is allowed to win once, in order to give as many people as possible the chance to win.

Some of the clues foster an understanding of local history and the arts. Others test peoples’ ability to match park locations with obscure landmarks. They are presented in the form of a rhymed riddle. The clues and locations of the gnomes represent a range of difficulty in both physical locations and in obscurity of the clues so that a wide breadth of people can participate, including people with limited knowledge of history and people with limited mobility. Some of the riddles lead people directly to the gnome, while others simply point them in the general direction.

Community Benefits

The project provides several benefits. First, it motivates people to re-connect with the community outside of their homes, to be physically active and have fun, even during sometimes dreary weather. Second, through the use of clues, the treasure hunt encourages people to think and learn about local history, the arts, geography and exploration of area parks. Third, it encourages patronage of local business establishments, which may be struggling due to the pandemic. Because the treasure hunt is not a single event bound by time, there is flexibility in participation: people can read the story and clues at home or hunt for gnomes when and where they feel like it. They can go alone, with others and meet other people while engaged in the activity.

Gnomes Away From Home transcends fostering appreciation for local parks and history. Through hints, rhymes, and sharing stories of their searches of missing gnomes, the clues encourage participatory storytelling. Seeking the missing gnomes gives people more than merely the chance to partake in a treasure hunt. It affords the opportunity to enter into a heroic quest of discovery.

As previously mentioned, this is a family-friendly project which engages and inspires audiences of all ages from children to adults. Care has been taken to place some of the gnomes in universally accessible locations, and to develop clues with varying levels of difficulty. In this way, the project is inclusive to all. While most treasure hunts are a one-time-only event and/or target children only, this event has a broad enough scope to include the entire community.

What Does a Community Mental Health & Wellness Occupational Therapist Do?

Part of my focus is helping people heal through what my profession calls areas of occupation. I look at multiple activities and areas of areas of occupation and determine how to best fit them together in a way that will help people feel wellbeing. Those areas include leisure, social participation and play which are all important to living a fulfilled and balanced life. Occupational therapists see people and their needs as part of an interconnected whole. Therefore, problems don’t generally take place in isolation. One thing leads to another. Everything affects everything else. This is true with opportunities for growth, healing and wellbeing as well. What’s also true about wellness and wellbeing, is that you don’t need to be ill, unhappy or suffering to make it a focus. Regardless of how happy we are, most of us could always benefit from increasing our experience of wellness and wellbeing. Community mental health occupational therapy focuses on creating and increasing wellness—as opposed to fixing or resolving a problem.

What is Wellness?

The best definition of wellness is your own.

It’s the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction you derive from leading the kind of life you want to live. Having a good quality of life where the different areas of your life that are important to you are in balance are a large part of wellness.

An emphasis on “perfection” or the expectation of predetermined outcomes may not be. Wellness is being able to meet your needs, fulfill your known potential, and still leave room for unpredictability. For life is all the more grand when we allow for a sense of awe, wonder, mystery and the fact that there is always more to it than what we have already seen and discovered.

What ‘s the Point of Play & Leisure?

When we play, we feel carefree. We get out of our heads and forget our worries for the future as we experience the present moment. We do the same thing when we make social connections and forge bonds with others. And guess what, we can do both at the same time. In a work driven culture that values efficiency and productivity, play (the more socially acceptable term for adults is “leisure,”) is often seen as insignificant—a waste of time even—especially for teenagers and adults. But play and leisure (and the fulfillment we derive from them) can lead to better quality rest and sleep, increased physical health, and a greater overall sense of wellbeing. Increased health and wellbeing positively impact all areas of our lives from the quality of our social lives to our work performance.

Gnomes Away From Home & Fostering Wellbeing

Gnomes Away From Home is unlike other treasure hunts in that it targets people of all ages. The mythology written about it includes an origin story for the missing gnomes, heroes and villains. Each gnome also has a name. When a person finds a gnome, one of the items they receive is a unique letter written from the perspective of each gnome that references its home, preferences, likes and dislikes and offers gratitude for being rescued. These storytelling components further enrich the activity, turning the treasure hunt into a hero’s quest where every gnome seeker can become a part of the narrative.

Imagination and storytelling allow us to step outside ourselves and take on other roles, however briefly. By stepping outside my own identity and becoming The Gnomebassador, I’ve been able to act as an intermediary and messenger of the Gnomes, and position myself with one foot in and another foot outside of the story. Role-playing, fantasy creation, and visualizing are integral parts of child’s play that are often lacking in adult play. All of these cognitive activities are good preparation for empathizing with others by taking their point of view. Practice using our imaginations also helps us solve problems by generating novel solutions.

In addition to the storytelling component of the activity, the treasure hunting component fosters a different set of skills. Abstract thinking, creativity, and the ability to discover multiple meanings and choose the correct one is needed in order to interpret clues and discover the location of the gnomes. Topographical orientation, attention to detail and concentration are required while in the environment searching for the gnome.

“Long May You Hunt.”

I asked myself if people would still have fun even if they were unable to find a gnome. I realized that even if a person was unable to solve a riddle, they could still participate in the story. Since not everyone can “win” in the conventional sense, there is always a risk that the hunt will end in frustration for some.

My hope is that even if most people do not find a gnome, the clues will lead them somewhere beautiful, that they will lose themselves for a moment, step out of their thoughts and cares, and have an experience of wellbeing that lasts longer than the moment.

It is in the act of doing something that we find the greatest fulfillment—not in reaching its conclusion. Therefore, I have done all that I can to prolong the game for as long as possible for as many people as possible. And this is why the ritual way of saying goodbye in Gnomes Away From Home is not, “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” but instead, “long may you hunt.”

Supporting Community Building

Money from the grant directly supports local business through the purchase of gift certificates (for prizes) from locally-owned businesses. Indirect support to local business continues when prize-winners bring their families with them to share a meal or buy a gift from a restaurant or store. But the economic benefit is secondary to the purpose of building community through creating new opportunities for shared experiences. Those shared experiences can include searching for gnomes with family and friends, sharing a meal at a local restaurant, discussing an inspirational book, or having an adventure exploring an unfamiliar local park.

The goal of building community is more than simply a feel-good ideal. It has practical value with serious ramifications for creating a more stable, understanding, and peaceful society.

When people of all backgrounds come together to have fun, they are more likely to build stronger social ties, empathize with different points of view, and peacefully resolve conflicts with each other when they arise.

All it takes is one cursory glance on various social media apps to see they there are vast differences of opinion and animosity in the world—even hostility—between different groups of people. Creating shared, all-inclusive experiences is perhaps the easiest, most effective way to create common ground and build bridges where few or none exist. Community building is an investment in a future we all share, and a means of safeguarding it for the succeeding generations we leave behind.

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