Sunday, October 4, 2009

My Friday Night

You are looking at 250 people eating dinner. The event is the annual NAMI San Diego Inspirational Awards Dinner, held last Friday. I’m on the NAMI SD board and was part of the committee that planned the dinner, so the sight of an ass on every available seat in the room positively warmed the cockles of my heart.

NAMI SD - through the support of its volunteers, the efforts of a very hard-working staff, and in partnership with numerous providers and organizations throughout San Diego County - runs an ambitious schedule of support, education, advocacy, and mental health services. Both the dinner and the annual walk serve to get out our message, connect with our community, and to raise funds.

I joined the NAMI SD board in May. The dinner was one of the items on the agenda, and I made the rookie mistake of opening my mouth. I happened to mention that I had attended two national NAMI dinners. Next thing, I was pressed into service for the dinner committee.

Trust me, every board meeting after that, I have breathed through my nose.

My major contribution to the dinner was setting up three new awards: A Media Award, a Research Award, and an Employer Champion Award.

The media at its best acts as our social conscience. Here I am, pictured with David Rolland, editor of the alternative weekly, CityBeat, that features a combination of edgy reporting and local scene reviews aimed at a young hip audience. Your average NAMI member - typically burdened with caring for a son or daughter with serious mental illness - probably doesn’t have the latest CityBeat folded open on the coffee table to the latest event listings.

But just two days before the dinner, CityBeat ran this story by Kelly Davis: “One person's trash - Homeless citizens argue that police, city destroy their stuff.”

For more than a full year, CityBeat got in readers’ faces with stories that featured providing a human face to homelessness. All through 2008, week after inexorable week, with the same unrelenting nature of the ghost of Banquo appearing to Macbeth, new faces with new narratives made their presence felt.

The world of CityBeat and the world of NAMI came together. Coming up with a winner was a no-brainer. Significantly, in presenting the Media Award, rising political star Councilman Todd Gloria noted that CityBeat accomplishes more publishing once a week than other publications (we won’t mention names) do publishing every day.

An issue dear to my heart is research. For years, I have attended psychiatric conferences throughout the country (and one in Scotland) where I have had the pleasure of witnessing some of the smartest people in the world turning in their science projects, many of them from San Diego (with a research community second to none).

These are people who have dedicated their lives to improving ours. The ones on our short list had received the highest international honors from their peers. But I strongly felt that we - the ultimate beneficiaries of their efforts - should show our appreciation, and so did our board and dinner committee.

David Braff MD (pictured here) has devoted his life to schizophrenia, and in the process has revolutionized psychiatric, genetic, and brain research. As one example, Dr Braff has pioneered “endophenotype.” This approach allows researchers to investigate an outward feature (phenotype) such as psychosis by looking at underlying phenomena, such as the inability of the brain to filter out sensory stimuli.

NAMI was founded by parents of individuals with schizophrenia. I have listened to their stories and been greatly moved by their love and compassion and dedication. Back in the bad old days, these moms and dads were blamed for being bad parents. Even today, they encounter a system that seems to frustrate them at every turn. Without the proof and truth provided by research, the ignorance and stigma surrounding mental illness would be a lot worse and everyones’ futures a lot more bleak.

We may not comprehend the fine points of brain science, but we are in profound awe of the efforts of its practitioners, and on Friday night we were all very happy to demonstrate our appreciation.

It goes without saying that without opportunities in the workplace, recovery simply does not happen. Friday was our chance to say it. Bettie Reinhardt, our executive director, has had very good experiences working with Alex Boyce and Jeff Hendricks, who labor as managers on the coal face for retailers TJ Maxx. TJ Maxx has an enlightened policy worldwide for hiring individuals with special needs, including those with mental illness.

Our intention had been to present our Employer Champion Award to the corporation, but Bettie came up with the brilliant idea of personalizing the Award by singling out Alex and Jeff. So, instead of a corporate suit turning up to collect the award, we had two heroes who were glad to be there. Alex and Jeff are two unassuming individuals with an unflinching dedication to doing the right thing. Going the extra mile for others requires tremendous moral courage, and NAMI SD was delighted to show its gratitude.

In their acceptance remarks, each of these awardees made a special connection to the audience. When they spoke, the dinner plates and utensils at the tables literally stopped clattering. Trust me, it was a very gratifying moment for me to have played a part in making this happen.

There was a lot more to the dinner: Elyn Saks, author of “The Center Cannot Hold,” received the Inspirational Person of the Year Award and rocked the house with a moving address. Helen Bergen received a Lifetime Achievement award for her legendary dedication to NAMI SD, and the very personable Devin Eshelman the Young Advocate Award. In addition, NAMI SD debuted its own 15-minute video, “Five Faces of Hope.”

Add to that a raffle and a silent auction, plus the million and one details that can spell the difference between success and disaster. Everything went off without a hitch; the evening was a brilliant success.

Here’s a picture of my grandchild, Edward Stewart, a few days old. I received this from my daughter on my iPhone as I was unwinding over a beer with three good friends. What a way to close the evening.

Things such as serving on dinner committees take me way outside my comfort zone, which is one of the reasons I became involved with NAMI SD. It’s very easy, working from home, for me to get stuck in my own rut or lose touch with why I am here. Contact with real people, even if the topic is floral arrangements for the dinner, is my reality check.

Here I was, engaging with ten or more individuals bringing a full range of life experience to the table. I listened, I learned, I connected. Next year, when they’re putting together a new dinner committee, I will have no hesitation in volunteering. But I will put my foot down: Dandelions (Norwegian dandelions) for floral arrangements - I won't take no for an answer.


Gina Pera said...

A wonderfully written report, as usual, John. Kudos for your role in making this event happen.

And wee-tiny Edward....awwww. I trust you'll provide updates. :-)

Bettie said...

John, I don't want to take anything from your outstanding hard work but I do have to mention that our very first Research Award went to Dilip Jeste, MD, UCSD Geriatric Psychiatric Department. Both Dr. Jeste and Dr. Braff do outstanding and needed research and both make the extra effort to see that it is applied clinically.

Lucy Talikwa said...

Great reporting on great reporting. Thanks. Yes--it's weird getting out in the seemingly mundane "reality-checking" parts of the world to make things happen. Keep on opening the big mouth. And stand firm on the dandelion thing.

Anonymous said...

thank you for that