A recent speaking engagement in Denver reminded me of three things.
The first is how we define home. I spent most of my childhood in Colorado and my sister is buried there. Because of that, I feel a strong attachment to the state even though I haven’t lived in Colorado since 1970. For nearly forty years, I’ve been a resident of Northern Virginia. This is where I’ve worked and reared my family. Just the same, I don’t think of myself as being an “Easterner” or, for that matter, a “Virginian.” I remember hearing Vance Packard speak once about our mobile society and how difficult it was to chose a burial plot for a family member. The idea of a family plot in a local cemetery was out-dated because generations no longer spent their lives in one location. During his speech, he asked: “How do we define home?”
The second thought that came to me during my trip was about the importance of jobs in helping persons with severe mental disorders recover. This seems so obvious that writing about it shouldn’t be necessary. But during the past several years that I have spent traveling across our country, I’ve noticed that securing employment for persons who have been diagnosed with mental disorders is rarely a priority.
This is a huge MISTAKE!
It is especially wrong to tell family members or persons with disorders that mental illnesses make it impossible for a person to work. If you want evidence of how dumbheaded such talk is, visit Bayaud Enterprises in Denver. Since it’s founding in 1969, Bayaud has helped more than 10,000 persons with disabilities find meaningful employment. I’m not talking about make-work here. I’m talking about real jobs that pay real wages. Last year, it placed 475 people, most with mental illnesses, into gainful employment.
I believe most people with mental disorders want the same things that all of us would like in our lives. We want a safe place to live, a purpose in life, and people to love and to love us. It really is that simple.
Yet, too many treatment programs overlook or ignore the need to find jobs for their clients. Having a job helps build self-esteem and gives a purpose to living. Sadly, I suspect many treatment programs downgrade the importance of jobs because they don’t want to be bothered trying to help someone find work, especially if a client qualifies for government disability.
The third thing that I noticed during my trip to Denver was how much one person can accomplish when he/she decides to help change our society. The force behind Bayaud Enterprises is David E. Henninger. During the 1960s when he was fresh out of college, Henninger visited Fountain House in New York City. That’s when he became convinced that jobs were essential to helping people with mental illnesses recover.
Fountain House dates back to the 1940s and the belief that persons with mental illness are capable of helping each other. I’ve visited Fountain House several times and am a strong proponent of its consumer-operated, clubhouse model. One program that I often mention in my speeches is Fountain House’s transitional jobs service. It is simply a brilliant model.
Realizing that some clients might not be able to work a 40 hour a week job, Fountain House contracts with companies to provide services — not individual employees. What does this mean? It means that a company may need to fill a job in a mail room. But rather than having one person do it, Fountain House may have five or six clients perform that single job duing the week. If I can only work two hours a day, then someone else comes in to relieve me. But all of us get to work and to earn a paycheck. It is job sharing at its best.
Henninger was so inspired by Fountain House that he returned to Denver and started Bayaud Enterprises. Today, its workers provide secure document shredding in Denver for the federal government and local businesses. as well as, document scanning and payroll services. While giving me a tour of its paper shredding compound, Henninger told me about a person with mental illness who was hearing voices and talking back to them. Despite this mental impairment, he reported to work every day on time and did his shift.
The reason why Bayaud has been successful is because of Henninger. He has dedicated his entire career to it. This is not the first time that I have seen the power of one person to change lives. In my book, I write about my late friend, Tom Mullen, who created Passageway, a fabulous program that takes persons in jails and prisons with mental disorders and helps them safely return to society.
Of course, there are many other areas in addition to mental illness where an individual crusader is making a huge impact. Consider my friend, Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the hero of my book, Circumstantial Evidence. A Harvard trained lawyer, Stevenson has been defending the legal rights of persons who live on the margins of our society for years for a pauper’s wages.
On my return flight from Denver, I thought about my Colorado roots, Bayaud Enterprises, and something that David Henninger said during an awards dinner. He described Bayaud Enterprises as a ”family” that offered persons with disabilities, Hope, Opportuntity and Choice, as well as a place that they could call home.
Maybe those schmaltzy Hallmark cards are right when they say that home is not a location but is where the people are who love you.