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Archive for February, 2011

The recent tragedy in Tucson sheds light on a great crisis in mental health care playing out in our country. There are many people in our society who need mental health services but don’t have access to them. The needs of those with mental illness often are pushed aside or ignored until it’s too late. And unfortunately, mental illness still maintains a stigma that other health care issues do not.

For a generation, the mental health safety net in our country has been eroding. Programs and facilities for those with mental illness have been closed and funding has been cut. Thousands of people who suffer from these conditions live undiagnosed and untreated.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a freeze on federal funds for nondefense discretionary expenditures over the next five years. This would likely include spending on social services such as mental health care, and may turn out to be a best-case scenario. Many in Congress want to cut funding for these programs significantly, returning funding levels to FY 2008 levels. While we certainly want our government to be fiscally responsible and take a hard look at funding for nonessential services, we also must be careful not to further erode much-needed services like mental health care that were already underfunded to begin with.

Volunteers of America has always understood the importance of mental health services as an essential part of helping many who we serve live better lives. Mental health counseling is a central part of many of our programs, including those for the homeless, veterans and those recovering from substance abuse. Fostering strong mental health is part of our integrated approach to addressing the root causes of our clients’ problems and helping them live independently and self-sufficiently. Our other efforts would be in vain if we didn’t first focus on any underlying mental illnesses.

To do this, of course, requires adequate funding. It is especially important today, with the spotlight now focused on the dangers of untreated mental illness and the current trend toward government funding cuts, that current services are not eroded even further. We must overcome the stigma that comes with mental illness and see this kind of care as an important part of helping people get their lives back on track.

Please join me in keeping the important issue of mental health on our national radar screen. The problems we address now may save lives in the future.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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How many of you have seen a car with its troubled driver pulled off to the side of the road…only to drive on by?  How many of you have seen someone walking on the side of the road in the pouring rain…only to drive on by? How many times have you seen a homeless person pushing a cart up the road…and drove on by?  Yet each of us thinks, “I am part of the human race.”  Which part is that?

I am almost 60 years old and I never thought that homelessness could happen to me! I’ve spent all my life being a strong, self-confident, independent and self-sufficient woman, depending on no one but myself.  I have never had to ask for help. So you can imagine how devastated I was when I found myself homeless.  I had always been somewhat judgmental of those who were homeless or without.  I often looked the other way, like most people do.  I thought that they did it to themselves or were too lazy to try and find work to pull themselves up.  My story is this – sometimes bad things happen to good people.

I am a professional woman who is hard-working, faithfully showed up every day; worked overtime and took work home at night to complete it when necessary.  But that didn’t prevent the economy from causing the company I worked for from experiencing financial difficulties, which eventually led to a mass layoff.  I promptly proceeded to put out hundreds of resumes, but to no avail.  At first, I started to feel frustrated at the lack of responses, but then fear started to set in as the unemployment checks I was getting were not enough to take care of my bills.  My self-confidence started to diminish and I began to feel less like a person because no one was interested in hiring me.  Then the depression sank in, and it took me to a place I’d never been before. On a scale of one to 10, I felt like a negative five.  I had gotten to the point of drinking quite heavily and had almost stopped eating altogether. It felt like no one cared.  It took a good friend to tell me, “Get some help. Go to a shelter.”

I took her advice and drove to a shelter the next day. “I need a place to live,” I said to the lady.  But the shelter was full as they frequently are and she kindly gave me a pamphlet with the names and addresses of other shelters. She told me to drive north four miles and see if another shelter had any rooms available. I followed her instructions, and drove up a long driveway, parked my car and walked into the “Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center,” owned and operated by “Volunteers of America Chesapeake.”  That moment has changed my life completely.

I reluctantly walked inside that beautiful place where a lady came from behind the counter and said, “May I help you?”  We sat down and talked for a while and as I explained my situation, she said, “I’m taking you in.”  I requested to make it later in the week, giving me time to pack my things and move.  She explained she couldn’t hold the bed as they, unfortunately, have to turn hundreds of people down each month for lack of space. So I decided to move in the next day.  It was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself.

Volunteers of America Chesapeake, its employees and volunteers are incredible.  I have received guidance and support unlike I’ve never seen before.  They have given me not only a warm bed and a roof over my head, but my life back…and my self-respect back as well.  They have programs that I have attended to help in numerous areas of my life.  They encourage that we job hunt everyday, which helped to motivate me to change my resume into something worth reading.  As a result I started receiving requests from employers for interviews. They encouraged me to start a budget and open a savings account to help save money in the event of an emergency.  There are people there to talk to that made me feel like a worthwhile person.  I have received the medical assistance that I’ve needed for quite some time but have been unable to receive because I lacked the proper insurance.  They have helped to restore my self-confidence so that I have been able to take care of burdening issues that have haunted me for years, because I was too afraid to deal with them on my own. They have given me back my hope!

Kathy cleaning at a campsite that was someone's home.

Thanks to the help and support of those wonderful people, I now have a place to live and a job waiting for me when I get there.  As a result of their work, I’m eating right, lost all desire to drink and they have made it possible to quit my 42-year smoking habit.  Today, I am smiling and laughing again.  I am the woman God wanted me to be. God is most definitely within those walls and the people who work there are all His angels.  I have also developed a stronger sense of compassion and humility while at the center.  I have walked for the homeless, an event in which we cleaned up along the side of U.S. Route 1.  I also went with a small group to clean up a homeless site in the woods nearby.  A woman had lived there; and it made me cry thinking of someone having to live that way.  A few weeks later I assisted to clean up another, much larger homeless camp site, deep in the woods.  I cried again, thinking how awful it was that people were being forced to live that way and at the same time feeling so grateful that it wasn’t me. I remember looking hard for signs of empty food cans, wondering how well they had eaten and how they had stayed warm in the winter. During the clean-up, someone turned to me and said “Kathy, this is a camp site.”  I thought to myself, “No, this was someone’s home.”

No matter how hard we try to ignore it, there are thousands of homeless individuals everywhere, including families with children, who, due to lack of work and affordable housing, have no place to go. There are certainly not enough wonderful centers like the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center to help, and yet I cannot help but think of the wonderful things they have done for me.  I have decided that I am going to get involved in homelessness and homeless prevention.  I am going to be the one who stops to help.  I want to be the one that is proud to be the better part of the human race.

Eternally grateful,

Kathy

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