People, Not Programs, Change Lives: How One Person Can Make A Difference


(2-8-16) I believe in the power of a single individual to cause change.  I believe in the power of one because of what I have personally witnessed visiting all but two states during the past ten years and what I continue to see each day.

Consider Vontasha Simms.

She is the 47 year-old mother of Romechia Simms, who was charged with manslaughter and child abuse after her 3-year-old son, Ji’Aire Lee, was found dead on a Maryland playground sitting in a swing. Romechia, who has schizophrenia and depression, had been pushing him for forty continuous hours and was still pushing him when the police arrived. An autopsy showed he died of hypothermia and dehydration.

Last week, Vontasha borrowed a car and drove 45 minutes from her home in Waldorf, Maryland to the state capitol in Annapolis, to talk to  lawmakers about the need for mental health reform, according to a story  by Fenit Nirappil in the Washington Post.

Vontasha had never been to the State House before and didn’t recognize any of the key players there but she went anyway to urge them to make it easier for parents or close relatives to take charge over adults who had mental disorders.

At the time of her grandson’s horrific death, Vontasha was living in a motel on public assistance. She is not someone who is a polished lobbyist but since Ji’Aire’s death and her daughter’s arrest, she has testified before her county commissioners and used the public outrage about the playground tragedy to talk about how she repeatedly tried to get her daughter help for her mental illness but couldn’t.

That takes courage.

It takes courage to launch This Is My Brave, the inspirational stage show that Jennifer Marshall and Anne Marie Ames co-founded that is currently preparing for another dramatic season of performances. During 2016, they will be holding auditions for shows in Greenville, S.C.; Iowa city, Iowa; Washington D.C.; Denver, Colorado; and Valparaiso, Indiana. That’s amazing. And it started with a casual conversation between Jennifer and Anne Marie.

It takes courage to do what Trudy Harsh has done here in Fairfax County, Virginia. A realtor, Trudy got tired of attending countless community meetings where nothing ever got done about an appalling lack of affordable housing.  She created the Brain Foundation and raised funds to buy a house for persons with mental illnesses. She named it in memory of her daughter Laura, who had a brain disorder. Trudy’s non-profit just purchased its 9th house in Fairfax. That’s amazing.

During my travels, I have met many courageous advocates. Chrisa Hickey who writes about her experiences with her son in The Mindstorm: Childhood Mental Illness  and has become a frequent advocate on Chicago television programs.  Ron and Lin Wilensky who launched Dave’s House in Florida. J. Nelson Kull 111 founder of the Pathways Drop In Center.  I could go on and on with names of individuals who decided to do something to improve the lives of persons in need. People such as Dinah Miller, Janine Francolini, D. J. Jaffe, Susan Infeld, Virgil Stucker, Doris Fuller, Buddy Weir, Harvey Rosenthal, Maryann McKenna, Geoff McLean, Debbie DeSantis, Susan Inman and Dennie Brooks. Some you might agree with. Others you may not. But all of them are making a difference by speaking out.

Which brings me to my good friend Sam Ormes, who I have written about several times on this blog. Sam was working inside a hell-hole known as the Miami-Dade Detention Center years ago when he was put in charge of getting cable television installed in the building because none of the cellblock televisions could get reception and jailers had found that having inmates spend their days watching television was better than having them brutalizing one another.

Sam turned one cable channel into an in-house station and he recruited inmates, many from the jail’s dismal psychiatric cellblocks, to produce a daily news show and other programing that gave prisoners hope and educated them about the dangers of smoking and other health issues. To liven things up, he had an attractive  psychic come into the jail to make predictions and he launched a call-in program where inmates could ask legal questions to public defenders.

Sam was the first in our country to ever launch an inmate run TV channel inside a jail and his creativity and enthusiasm helped rehabilitate several inmates.

He was an inspiring character who helped convince me that it is not institutions or governments that truly change lives. They are simply instruments. It is the people who speak out for others and touch their lives that bring about change.

Sam died a few days ago. RIP my friend. You were one of a kind. And what you did helped others.



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.