Just as recently as a few years ago, most of the individuals accepting awards last Friday at First Christian Church for their strength and courage were in a different place– combatting their personal bouts of mental illnesses, homelessness and suicide.
Now they are serving as inspiration for others to take a leap of faith and change their lives– just like their supporters before them.
Thirty five Mental Health America (MHA) Village members received Stories of Amazing Recovery (SOAR) awards on Friday, June 3, at the church, located at 440 Elm Ave., for their efforts and successes in going against their personal issues of mental illness and other struggles.
“If you told me I would have been here a year ago, I wouldn’t believe that,” said Bruce Bonnette, who detailed his story of mental-health recovery at the event. “Not just because I’m here accepting an award, but because I’m actually taking the step to get help with mental-health illness.”
MHA is a nonprofit that seeks to serve the most vulnerable people living in Long Beach, according to a press release from the organization. Since then, it has grown into a provider of mental-health services in the area.
“We see the value of every life, and we bring people back from the brink and back from the difficulties that are facing them,” said David Pilon, MHA president and CEO. “We could not do this without the support of volunteers and our community members.”
The annual MHA Golden Ducky Awards Ceremony is a graduation honoring people who have made progress in recovery.
According to the event’s program, the ducky symbol comes from a Sesame Street episode in which the character Ernie unsuccessfully attempts to play a saxophone while holding on to his rubber ducky. Eventually, with the support of other characters, Ernie discovers– much to his discomfort– that he can only learn to play the instrument by putting down his beloved toy.
The symbol of putting down the rubber ducky and taking the risk of being uncomfortable in order to learn something new inspired the MHA Village to use the episode’s theme as part of its philosophy. Now, the “Golden Ducky” has become a symbol of success for those who “put down their duckies” and try something new.
Bonnette finally opted to embody that philosophy after initially resisting getting help for his mental health, he said. Sometime back in December, he decided to visit Long Beach Mental Health Services and attempt recovery.
He was rejected.
“Wow,” Bonnette thought to himself. “I must be really messed up; they don’t even want to deal with me.”
Instead, officials at Long Beach Mental Health recommended him to the Village. To this day, Bonnette calls it a real blessing.
“That was the best thing they could do for me,” he said. “Life is real good right now… The stigma (about mental health) is that people look at you funny and talk about you. I can honestly say that I never felt that from anybody on staff. No one. I just feel so welcomed.”
But it isn’t always an easy path to recovery. Alfred Brock, who was honored with his fellow peers, long contemplated ending his own life.
“I have a long history with suicide, which I long considered as nobody’s problem but mine,” Brock said. “My opinion was that if I could exit Earth silently without telling anyone, nature would not blink and stay on its course. So I spent so many moments wondering how I would execute this reality of mine silently and smoothly.”
He found shelter in the Village. Skeptical of its program, Brock was soon convinced of the MHA’s intentions to help him after seeing how “serious they were about their work.”
Instead of losing himself in thoughts of suicide, Brock now finds that “working with others is my way of giving back.”
Pedro Ramirez, who had his own struggles to share, expressed thankfulness toward all of his supporters and the people present in the church. He was quick to share his insight on life, as well.
Among all things, Ramirez said nobody is perfect but everybody has the right to choose what’s best for them and to make the right choices.
“Through my life, I learned that I have to persevere, even when everything isn’t fair,” he told the crowd. “Whether it’s a mental state or it’s choice… I just hope that everyone knows that we aren’t born perfect. People come out of the womb messed up, or everything ends up going well. With life, it’s something you have to choose for yourself each day… Don’t waste your love or your choices or your words. It’s all that matters. I hope you all have that birth. I just want the best for each person.”
U.S. Congressmember Alan Lowenthal, who represents the 47th District, gave some remarks at the ceremony. He commended the volunteers and community members at the Village for stepping forward and involving themselves in the lives of those who need help.
“Their stories of courage– I wonder if I would have that kind of courage,” Lowenthal said of those who shared their road to recovery. “Their stories of standing up and saying ‘You know, I have taken risks. I was really down. But I have transformed my life with the teams that are here, with the love, with the welcoming and with the support.’ I am inspired by these stories. I am inspired by the human condition. I am inspired by how they can transform themselves.”
He added that MHA has set a precedent for the rest of the nation, even jokingly adding that it’s about time Congress itself finally established the Village’s supportive practices.
“I’ve watched the Village over the years, and I think the nation is really starting to understand the importance of mental illness,” he said. “To not isolate. To not stigmatize… It just changes people’s lives. I think it has really set a standard for the rest of the country to move forward… They are supported. They are asked to participate. I think those are all great things that we should do more in Congress.”
Donnese Caballero, the commencement speaker at the ceremony, documented her battle with mental illness. Describing the people in MHA as family is a large contrast to what she was like a few years ago– “violent” and “bad,” she said.
“I didn’t really talk to anybody about the voices I had in my head,” she said. “The crazy thoughts I had. The crazy things I was doing… I got away from it for a while. I guess I did… I was just not going to believe something was wrong with me when there really was. I was hearing things, and I was seeing things. Something was clearly wrong. I was doing a lot of bad things.”
Caballero said she was always fighting. As she described standing in front of a judge and waiting to get sentenced, she said a representative of the Village– who had interviewed her prior to the sentencing– stood up and expressed a desire to help her through the MHA program.
To her disbelief, the judge agreed.
“That was strange,” she said. “They let me out. You guys helped lift me up. You put me in a hotel room. You fed me. You gave me a place to go. And I remember that.”
Before Caballero started “mentally disappearing,” as she described it, she once worked as a community case worker. She always had aspirations to become a lawyer.
MHA Village started encouraging Caballero to get back to work. It was the Village’s persistence and support system that gave her courage, she said.
“Don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do,” Caballero said. “I shouldn’t be here, but you told me I should. And I could. And I did. And I’m doing it.”
As a parting message, Caballero said that MHA Village ultimately gave her family, friends and people to relate to that shared similar problems just like hers. She said she could go “on and on and on” but affirmed her message about encouragement and love.
“I can’t even express the things I’ve been through– the places I’ve been, the people I hurt, because it was all about me, myself and I,” she said. “That was my mental illness. I just thought about me. I didn’t think about you… People said to change my ways. My ways were right with me. I was getting over it, and I was getting on. I’m going to get mine and forget you. And it didn’t work out that way. You started making me believe in myself. You started making me see my wrongdoings. And you started loving me. Why? Thank you for loving me.” ✦