I started working at NAMI Greater Seattle (it was known as the Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill at the time) in June 2001. I called the office after moving to Seattle from Oklahoma just to see how I could get involved with the organization. The executive director at the time, Eleanor Owen, offered me a job right away when I told her what experience I had. I told her I was going to be starting graduate school in the fall so I didn’t really want to work, but I would be happy to volunteer. I started volunteering that week and soon realized that they needed a lot more help, so I accepted her job offer. I worked full-time during the summer until school started in the fall and then found out that work-study was available through my financial aide department. As a student, the financial aide office reimburses the organization 80% of my pay. I work about 10 hours a week and go to school the rest of the time.
Soon after I started working at NAMI, I began contacting all of the middle schools, high schools, and alternative schools in the Seattle school district and offering them presentations on mental illness for their students. I developed a presentation where I explained the basics of mental illness and then went through specific disorders. I also had a volunteer that would come with me who had bipolar disorder. He would talk about his own experience with the disorder and let the students ask him questions. This was a very rewarding experience and one that I am so glad that I got to have.
After about a year of doing this, our new executive director, Frank Jose, told me about a new national program that he had learned of called In Our Own Voice. This sounded a lot like what I had already been doing, except done by consumers themselves. He asked me to coordinate the new program, since educating people about mental illness was something I had already been doing. I was able to find 15 consumers that wanted to be trained as speakers and we had our first training in November 2002. After many practice sessions with the presenters, we were finally ready to start giving presentations in January 2003. Since then, we have given 70 presentations and reached over 1,500 people! We have spoken to mental health agencies (staff and consumers), middle schools, high schools, colleges, churches, rotary clubs, the state convention, shelters, section eight building residents, non-profit organizations, support groups, family groups, and educational forums. We even had a story published about us in the local archdiocese’s newspaper, The Northwest Catholic Progress. KING 5 television station has also filmed a presentation to be broadcast yet as a news story.
I am graduating in June 2004 with my master’s in mental health counseling and will no longer be working at NAMI Greater Seattle. I am excited to be starting a new career in my life and know that the time that I have spent coordinating the In Our Own Voice program will make me a better counselor. There is also a part of me that is sad about my time at NAMI ending. Although I plan on staying involved in the organization as a volunteer and to continue teaching Family-to-Family, I will truly miss coordinating the In Our Own Voice program. I care about and greatly respect each presenter that I work with and feel it is a privilege to hear everyone's stories. After I am gone, I am confident that the program will continue to flourish and grow and I am excited to see where it goes in the future.