Changing the world, one person at a time.

What do a beauty pageant winner, a retired state probation officer, a former homeless man, and a grieving father have in common? 

Pete Earley talking with Nita Brown, NAMI President Arapahoe Douglas Counties

Those of you who read my blog regularly can easily guess the answer. All four have had their lives impacted by mental illnesses. But that is not why I am writing about them. I want to share their stories with you because of how they have chosen to react to the hurdles they’ve encountered.

First some background.

I recently gave the keynote speech at the Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network’s tenth annual benefit luncheon in  Englewood, Colorado.  Luncheon events are always tricky to plan because guests need to return to work and are on tight schedules. But Meryl Glickman, who oversaw the event, did a superb job of keeping everyone on track, including me. During lunch, Scott Thoemke, the long-time executive director of the mental health network, told me that Colorado faced major budget deficits — just like every other state. Fortunately, because of lobbying by mental health advocates, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness Colorado chapters, and efforts by legislators, such as State Senator Linda Newell, the state’s mental health funds were not cut as much as first feared. 

I was impressed by the Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network’s support of Crisis Intervention Team training and mental health courts. During the luncheon, the group gave awards to Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers and Colorado State Public Defender James O’Connor. Both spoke about how important it was to get defendants, who are obviously mentally ill, into treatment rather than having them languish in jails and prisons. 

But let’s get back to the pageant winner, retired probation officer, former homeless man, and grieving father.

As I’ve written before on this blog, the best part of traveling across the nation giving speeches is that I get to meet persons recovering from mental disorders and their loved ones.  Many of them share their stories with me when I am autographing copies of my book after a speech. I have never left one of these events without hearing a story that has broken my heart. I’ve also not left an event without being inspired by someone who overcame the odds and is doing well.

Chris Orloski is one of those success stories. While a college student, Chris became ill and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He ended up homeless on the streets for eighteen months.  Eventually, Chris got the help that he needed and today, he is a peer specialist employed by a Colorado mental health provider. Peer specialists are individuals with mental disorders who learn how to assist, mentor and advocate for other persons who are ill. I’m a strong supporter of peer-to-peer programs because I know they are effective. My son, Mike, has undergone peer training and is employed as a peer specialist.

But what really impressed me about Chris was what he did after he became a peer specialist. He noticed that many of his clients didn’t own watches. Chris had always been interested in timepieces and had collected several dozen. Being generous, he began distributing his collection of watches to homeless persons. The demand was so great that he quickly ran out. At that point, he began asking for donations and in 2009, Chris launched a non-profit organization called On Time For Recovery.  If you take a moment to visit his webpage, you can see a news report about Chris and read about how many watches, he and his volunteers have distributed.  

Have some recipients hocked the free watches? Some may have. But Chris has found that many of the homeless individuals who get a watch treasure it, not only because it keeps time, but because this simple act of generosity shows them that in one of the most desperate times of their lives, someone cared.

After I met Chris at the luncheon, a striking woman asked if she could have her picture taken with me. Michelle Field told me that in 2009, she was crowned Mrs. Colorado International and promptly put on a slash to prove it. She represented women in their 40s, she said. 

But it is how she is using her notority that got my attention. After one of her four children began cutting herself, Michelle  turned to NAMI and a group called, To Write Love On Her Arms,  for help. She completed NAMI’s Family to Family course, and decided to call attention to mental illness through her pageant connections. She has encouraged other pageant participants to talk about mental disorders, especially ones that are experienced by young girls.

I also met Angel Gonzales at the luncheon. He told me that several members of his family struggle with bipolar disorder and depression. He wanted to do something to help them but wasn’t certain what he could contribute. After he retired from being a Colorado probation officer, where he’d worked with troubled children, Angel bought lights, a camera, and returned to school to study television production and film making. Using his own money, he is currently making a film that will “document the brutal individual tragedies that result when our society ignores the mentally ill.”  We spent an hour talking about his film.

The grieving father, who approached me in Colorado, was Gary Mitchell whose daughter Pamela committed suicide a year ago. With tears filling his eyes, he explained how he had asked the Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network to help him establish a fund in his daughter’s name to honor her.

Gary is not the first parent I’ve met whose child ended his/her own life. I remember a couple approaching me after one speech, both were crying and clearly suffering. They told me that their son had killed himself. Then, they told me that both of them were psychiatrists. “Even we, with all of our training, couldn’t save our son,” the man said.

This is what I mean when I say that mental illnesses are cruel diseases.

The homeless man turned peer specialist, the beauty pageant winner now speaking out about mental illnesses, the former probation officer turned independent film maker and the grieving father — all have a common bond. In their own unique ways, they have become advocates.

They are fighting those cruel diseases.

They remind me of a quote that I include in everyone of my speeches. Read what  anthropologist Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

What is your unique gift? How are you changing the world?

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Agnesjross says

    I was totally wowed by your book “Crazy”.  Now I’m going to try some of the others hopefully to learn about some other arenas that I want to know more about.  It appears when you come to Baton Rouge, LA when the library system in using “Crazy” as it’s One Book, One Community selection, I may be on a panel with you.  I’m really looking forward to meeting you in person and listening to you.  Agnes J. Ross 

  2. Agnesjross says

    Dear Mr. Earley,
         I am a soon-to-be 60 year old, African-American female with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.  I was fortunate enough to work with the Mental Health Assn for Greater Baton Rouge for 25 years, and there learned a great deal about my illness and how to cope with it and still live a relatively normal life.  But I must admit that for much of my life, I didn’t think so much that the illness is cruel (as you say in your book), but that LIFE is difficult, painful and full of suffering.  I was talking to my sister the other day, who is a year younger than I am, and we both said we didn’t expect to live to be this age.  I had two sucide attempts, the first in my mid-twenties which was not so serious as it was destructive to my parents’ property.  The next attempt in my early thirties was pretty dangerous, but I was found and my stomach was pumped out.  I am simply awed that I am actually a productive citizen with a good life and job (at the public library) and that I can often find joy and contentment in my life.  I look forward to meeting you when you come to Baton Rouge.  I thought your book was one of the most comprehensive, clear, and authoritative sources I have read about the state of mental illness and mental health in this country over the past forty years and longer.  I was struggling to cope with my illness and working with the mentally ill while deinstitutionalization was going on.  However, your book was the first time I started to understand what was behind the whole process and why it happened.  The library system I work for has chosen your book as its One Book, One Community Selection for this summer.  In the past three days since I finished the book, I’ve been talking to everyone I know about it.  It is simply very wonderful.    Agnes J. Ross