Local Heroes

People whose good deeds make Tucson a better place

Naomi and Elizabeth Caraballo

Naomi and Elizabeth Caraballo

After a horrible tragedy, these two sisters decided to assist moms in need

At From One Mother to Another's headquarters, piles of toys and clothing line the walls, and spill out onto the tile. Naomi Caraballo ignores the upheaval; she's adjusted to living in a house that doubles as a charity.

For co-founders (and sisters) Naomi and Elizabeth Caraballo, the dream of gathering starter items like cribs, clothing and diapers to donate to needy families began six months ago. As the economy took a plunge early this fall, the number of families needing assistance skyrocketed.

"In the beginning, my sister and I had two or three families, and every other day, we would go and drop off donations," Elizabeth said. "Now, with over 300 families, we hardly see each other."

With financial woes looming, time constraints are the least of Elizabeth's worries. According to the duo, at a fashion-show fundraiser the agency held last month, From One Mother to Another actually lost money.

"For this particular event, we had an unexpected bill which put us $1,400 in the hole," Elizabeth said. "This was supposed to be our seed money, so that we could finish our 501(c)(3) (tax-exempt) status and become recognized as a nonprofit agency by the government and apply for grants."

Elizabeth tears up as she talks about her agencies' recent disappointments. It wasn't long ago that she was a single parent herself, pregnant with a child whose father had been murdered. With the help of friends and family, Elizabeth was able to take two weeks off of work after the birth of her now-2-year-old daughter.

"I started to search for single-mother help, or starting-family help, just to see what's out there," Elizabeth recalls. "Outside of AHCCCS and DES (the state Department of Economic Security), there really wasn't much."

After being laid off by a health-insurance/cost-containment company, Elizabeth decided it was her turn to spread generosity, like her friends and family had shown her. Elizabeth's first effort--a low-profile MySpace charity page--had little impact, because few friends showed interest in sponsoring one family a month.

Now Elizabeth and her daughter, Naomi (named after her aunt), live with Elizabeth's parents, a sacrifice Elizabeth made as From One Mother to Another continued to grow.

"What we have done is, basically, we've created our inventory through donations, but everything outside of that--from the storage space, to the gas it takes, to the man hours--has all been on our backs," Elizabeth said.

That's why From One Mother to Another, in collaboration with Park Place Mall's The Body Shop and Little Gym at 7225 E. Broadway Blvd., is asking people to offer a $3 dollar donation to help fund the processing fees associated with applying for 501(c)(3) status. The Body Shop is also hosting a giving tree for the agency.

"We've been in purgatory for six months, because we just can't afford to get through the next step," Elizabeth said. "I want so much better for what we are doing--and I see something terrific; I see something that's needed."

Elizabeth begins to tear up again, but this time, her sister intercedes with a childhood song that "drives Elizabeth nuts." Within moments, a smile spreads across Elizabeth's face--she's acknowledging her organization's accomplishments.

"I just focus on the fact that today, I gave somebody a bed who has never had one--and he's 4 years old," Elizabeth said.

To donate items to From One Mother to Another, call 904-4555, or e-mail. For more information, visit the Web site.

Megan Neighbor

Mike Carson

This Vail School District teacher embraces life and fights for what's right

There's a slight limp. It's hardly noticeable, really, and unless you know Mike Carson well, you'd never know he struggles with Parkinson's disease, which sometimes makes his days unbearable. Yet the artist and Empire High School art and math teacher goes on.

But that isn't why Carson is a hero. Parkinson's is just an annoyance compared to the bigger fight he's waged for the past five years for Davidson Canyon. It's an area targeted by California Portland Cement for a mine/quarry on public land, after the Arizona State Land Department approved leases in 2006 for three limestone-mining claims there.

Anyone familiar with the state Constitution knows that it's almost impossible to save areas owned by the Land Department, which has to offer them up for "highest and best" use (read: the most profitable). But Carson has nonetheless taken on the fight, crusading against the Land Department and for Davidson Canyon.

About nine years ago, Carson moved to Tucson and bought 44 acres in the Empire Valley, southeast of Tucson near Vail. It's the longest that Carson has stayed put, and his roots here have now grown deep.

Carson grew up outside of Houston and was raised as a Southern Baptist. Like many boys, he got his love of adventuring in the woods near his house. But that wasn't enough to make him consider staying. In 1983, he graduated from Texas A&M University, and the next day, he drove west to Los Angeles to start a new life.

That life took him to Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps, and then to Italy, Los Angeles, Bali, New York City and, eventually, Arizona. Not only did he find a new home in those hills, but eventually he met his boyfriend, Jack Bruitt, and they've been together the past five years. Carson plans to eventually develop an artist colony on the 44 acres for writers and artists to be inspired by the ocotillo, cactus and mountain shadows, he says.

Carson says art, advocacy and adventure have always been part of his life. Dealing with health issues, like his Parkinson's, have been part of the picture, too. There are good days, and there are bad days.

What keeps Carson going, besides the dream to develop the artist colony, are his art and math students at Empire High School. However, this may be Carson's last year of teaching full-time. The Parkinson's is becoming more profound, and Carson says he wants time to work on his own art, develop the artist colony and protect Davidson Canyon.

Carson says he's proud he was able to bring his neighbors together to form the Empire Fagan Coalition and to begin a thorn-in-the-side conversation with the State Land Department, the governor's office and Pima County.

Carson and his neighbors all along have questioned the logic of allowing mining near a growing residential area that depends on well water. Last year, they put much of their hope in a lawsuit filed by the county that challenged the mining designations. However, the Board of Supervisors dropped the lawsuit to save money after the county attorney told them they had no chance of winning.

"What I saw in this process was a lack of transparency. I've learned you've got to take control of your government and tell them to their face what you want," Carson says. "I also learned that politicians should not be in charge of our society. If that's the case, then we remain headed for disaster."

Carson admits that mining trucks may soon be headed toward Davidson Canyon. Borrowing a couple of pages from his activist days with the AIDS/HIV activist organization ACT UP, Carson says we can expect a few bodies to block the road, and others to be handcuffed to the mine gate.

Carson smiles and shakes his head. Yes, he says, they'll continue to fight mining in Davidson Canyon to the very end.

Mari Herreras

Barbara Dolan

This relentless fundraiser and inspirational coach is 'not afraid to tackle anything'

Barbara Dolan started running when she found out her mom was sick with cancer five years ago.

At first, Dolan, who turned 30 this year, was lucky if she could run two minutes straight on the treadmill, but she didn't give up. She'd run for two minutes, walk for two minutes, and then run for two minutes again. She made herself stronger day by day.

"It seemed like a good way to deal with all my emotions," Dolan remembers. "I was always a horrible runner in junior high when they would make us run laps. So I thought that if I could run just a mile, that would really prove something."

The cancer snatched away her mom, Judy Dolan, within months of the diagnosis. Judy had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease when she was just 22 years old and pregnant with Barb's sister, Holly. She delayed treatment to ensure Holly would be born healthy.

"By the time my sister was born, my mom was really sick, and she had to go through horrible treatment," Dolan says. "I did some research on this, and some of the treatment that they used was derived from mustard gas."

The doctors warned Judy that the treatment for her lymphoma would put her at risk of developing cancer later in her life.

"It saved her, but it only gave her 20 to 25 more years of life," Dolan says. "Just as the doctors predicted, she got cancer in 2003 and died."

Shortly after her mom's death, Dolan found a way to both continue her new passion for running and honor her mother's memory: Team in Training, an organization that offers free coaching and pays for travel costs for people who want to participate in marathons, bike rides and other athletic fundraisers, on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

"They provide a really supportive environment," Dolan says. "I was scared that people would laugh at me or say, 'That girl can't run.' But you go and you discover there is a whole community of people like you."

Thanks to her new coaches, Dolan was running in a Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Phoenix within months.

In exchange for the free coaching, Dolan agreed to raise money to battle leukemia and other blood cancers. Team in Training estimates the cost of participating in marathons, bike rides or triathlons, and then multiplies that figure by four to set fundraising goals for the athletes.

"That way, they guarantee that at least 75 percent of the money always gets back the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society," says Dolan. "Participants get this amazing experience, and at the same time, they're raising funds."

In 2008, Team in Training raised more than $71 million for blood-cancer research.

Dolan started out fundraising by contacting friends and family to ask for contributions. But once she gets a passion for something, watch out--she's relentless.

Dolan has organized a golf tournament in Phoenix, sold Mardi Gras beads at Tucson Weekly's Club Crawl™ and hawked breakfast burritos--made with donated ingredients--at Sahuarita's Town Hall, where she worked as a spokeswoman before launching her own public-relations firm earlier this year. All in all, she's raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 in the last four years.

"It's pretty much addicting," says Dolan. "This happens a lot with people in Team in Training: Once you do one event, the experience is just so special that you want to go back and keep doing more events. You can't quit."

Dolan started working for Team in Training in 2006 as a coach for the cycling team. One of her first team members was Mike Wilhite, who joined Team in Training after his son had gone through two rounds of battling lymphoma.

The 63-year-old "former tennis bum" says that Dolan helped him prepare for America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride at Lake Tahoe.

"She was super-inspirational," Wilhite remembers. "She's just a lot of fun. She puts her heart into everything. Whatever needs to be done, she'll do it. She's not afraid to tackle anything."

Ben Wilson, a 21-year-old UA math major, signed on with Team in Training about a year ago and, in just 16 weeks, went from not running at all to competing in a marathon with the help of Dolan's coaching.

"She knows exactly what it takes beyond the actual training to get you prepared to run a marathon," Wilson says. "She's always upbeat. It doesn't matter if you've had a terrible week, and you're totally beat by your training session on Saturday morning. She's always there to offer support."

Dolan has fallen in love with running in Rock 'n' Roll Marathons around the country. She appreciates having bands set up along the course, especially since it takes her about five hours to run all 26.2 miles.

"You're out there for a while, so it provides a really fun atmosphere," Dolan says. "The way I like to think of it--and I know this sounds kinda cheesy--is that it's a celebration of life.

"The whole reason I'm involved with Team in Training is so that other people who are in the same situation as my mom don't have to die 20 years later," she adds. "They can live a full life and see their kids get married and meet their grandkids and all that stuff."

Team in Training will have several organizational meetings in January. For more info, visit the Web site.

Jim Nintzel

Randy Hansen

Once a troubled kid who liked to draw, he uses art to help kids stay out of trouble

Randy Hansen ran away from home with a friend when he was just 13 years old. His abusive stepfather used to beat him up a lot, he said.

"We were going to take up a life of crime, but before we got started, we got busted," Hansen chuckled. "So I can relate to kids who get a rough start in life."

As an adult, Hansen would own an art gallery and a commercial advertising agency. He also worked as an art consultant for a bank before deciding he needed a change.

"When the recession of the '80s hit, I didn't have the incentive to keep doing what I was doing," Hansen said. "My philosophy is to do what your heart tells you to do, and the universe will provide. So I decided to go work with kids and do my own art, and I went up to Reno."

While in Reno, Nev., Hansen became a counselor for an organization called Rite of Passage, which almost exclusively deals with juvenile gang members.

"It was perfect for me, because those are the kinds of kids who relate to me, because if they know you're not bullshit, if they know you're for real, they're incredible to work with. It becomes a piece of cake, because they'll respect you, and they'll do what you want," Hansen said.

Hansen's job was to prepare the boys for what was going to be required of them, explaining rules and showing them how to do their chores.

"You can't bullshit them. I mean, street kids from East L.A. pick it up really fast--they might not have education or have sophisticated parents, but, boy, they can pick up whether you're real or not."

After five years in Reno, Hansen moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he had a tough time working with Native American delinquents.

"It takes them a long time to come around, whereas the gangbangers were a piece of cake," Hansen said. "I had a Native American kid once who was graduating from high school, so I said to him, 'I'm really proud of you; let me give you a hug.' And he said no, men don't hug each other, and I said, 'Real men do,' and I gave him a hug," Hansen said as he laughed.

Hansen later worked as a maximum-security prison counselor for juveniles. After growing tired of the bureaucracy, he decided to move to Tucson.

"A lot of at-risk kids have an unbelievable amount of talent, so I decided I wanted to guide some kids with art, and overnight, this thing mushroomed."

"This thing" is the growing art program at La Paloma Family Services that allows kids to use photography as a creative channel.

"It gives them something to do that is special and makes them feel special," he said.

The kids are encouraged to create unique designs using cups, sticks or whatever they can find. They are supplied with cameras, and Hansen watches while giving suggestions on how to create interesting sculptures and images.

Hansen said it's hard to put into words how he is able to connect with these kids; it's just something you either have, or you don't, he claimed.

"Maybe it's because of the work I used to do as an artist: Image is everything, so it's how you dress; it's how you walk; it's how you stand; it's how you talk to someone," Hansen said.

Hansen, 72, hopes to expand the program to include other forms of artistic expression such as pottery and painting.

"I do this because it makes me feel so frickin' good," Hansen said. "I love it when a kid who has never had respect for anyone is showing mutual respect for me."

Taylor Avey

Michelle Harper-Brule

At the Primavera Men's Shelter, she offers a helping hand

In 2002, a man named Andy came in to the Primavera Men's Shelter.

Andy was estranged from his family, had poor social skills and had been living in the desert in an effort to isolate himself from others.

Being in the men's shelter was a scary experience for him--but Andy had been diagnosed with cancer and needed a place to stay.

When Michelle Harper-Brule, operations supervisor for Primavera Men's Shelter, met Andy, she wanted to help.

"Before he died, I was able to get him to call his family and make arrangements for him to go back," Harper-Brule said. "A week later, his sister called me and said he had passed away."

For Harper-Brule, helping men like Andy is all in a day's work.

Harper-Brule oversees the 100-bed facility that offers homeless men in Tucson showers, food, a place to sleep and referrals to other social-service programs that the men might need. It offers hope and the chance for men to get back on their feet.

"It's amazing how just a smile or, when one of them comes in the door, (saying), 'You have another day sober,' and just recognizing that means a lot to the guys," Harper-Brule said. "Asking them how they are doing and just simple stuff like that--it's amazing how it can change a person's attitude or give them courage and hope to take it one day at a time."

Harper-Brule, a Tucson native, grew up around social services; both her mother and grandmother worked in the field. She knew she wanted to be in the field, but wasn't sure what type of work she wanted to do.

She volunteered with Victim Witness and Child Protective Services, but they weren't what she was looking for. After graduating from Pima Community College, Harper-Brule got a job as a case manager with the Salvation Army.

"Something kind of clicked, and that's what I felt I needed to be," Harper-Brule said. She joined Primavera in 2002 and continues to work directly with clients.

At the men's shelter, Harper-Brule oversees the daily activities. Clients are let in at 5 p.m. They are served dinner and work with case managers to figure out what other services--such as work programs or referrals for health programs--they may need. Harper-Brule supports the case managers and employees, and responds to any questions or problems the men have.

Harper-Brule never knows what to expect when she heads to work.

"There are happy times; there are sad times. Every day is just different," Harper-Brule said.

The men who seek shelter at Primavera are a diverse lot. Some have recently lost a job; some are working but unable to afford housing; some are facing substance-abuse problems or mental-health issues. Others, like Andy, have physical problems.

"They're just people like you and I who are having some hard times and don't have their families to back them up, for some reason," Harper-Brule said. "Most of them don't have that support system."

Despite being a part of a safety net for Tucson's homeless, Harper-Brule said she does not feel like a hero.

"Not at all," Harper-Brule said. "I feel that Primavera is a hero to a lot of people, and I'm thankful to be a part of that."

Claire Conrad

Gerald Jeffery

He is helping the Pascua Yaqui overcome decades of poverty through education

The original Casino of the Sun, on the hard east edge of the Pascua Yaqui Reservation, continues to hum along these days. It is dwarfed in scope and glitziness by the grand Casino del Sol (with its fancy restaurants and the AVA Amphitheater) a couple of miles to the west, but Casino of the Sun has served its purpose amazingly well.

The profits from the first Pascua Yaqui gambling enterprise helped build the Del Sol facility, and the profits from both are now helping the Yaqui people break the generations-old cycle of poverty and despair.

Out behind Casino of the Sun are some nondescript modular buildings, including one that houses the Pascua Yaqui Adult Education Program. Heading the effort is Gerald Jeffery, a longtime Tucsonan who feels that what he is doing now is the most satisfying thing he has done in a long career in education and government.

The Yaquis, like many Indian nations these days, try to hire from within whenever possible, making Jeffery, at first glance, an odd fit.

"I'm black," he explains in a slow, slightly Southern drawl, "but I've got some Seminole in me."

He launches into an impromptu history lesson about how the Seminoles in Florida took in escaped slaves who sought refuge in the Everglades. Later, a breakaway group of blacks and Seminoles moved to East Texas, where there was work in the fields. Jeffery's grandmother was descended from that group.

He was born in hardscrabble Sherman, Texas, but grew up and went to high school in Chinle, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation, where his mother was an administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"I wasn't just an observer of that culture; I was totally immersed in it," he says.

He was a stud athlete at Chinle, making all-state teams in football, basketball and track. He finished third in the state in both hurdles races and was first-team all-state in basketball, which earned him a scholarship to Northern Arizona University.

He got a degree in education at NAU and worked several different jobs. He was a probation officer before getting his current position.

Inside the building are several rows of desks. Students of different ages work on handouts and practice sheets. Jeffery says the number of students is growing at a good rate.

"The tribe has put an emphasis on education, from the youngest kids on up through adults of all ages," he says. "Education is the key to lifting the entire nation up to a higher level."

While outsiders might think that Indian tribes are all awash in gambling proceeds, that is not the case. Certainly, there is money that didn't used to be there, but it only goes so far. The no-frills facility where Jeffery works is actually an upgrade from the previous spot.

They run three class sessions per day: 8 a.m. until noon; 1 to 3 p.m.; and 5 to 8 p.m. in the evenings. The tribe used to hold GED graduations four times a year, but the logistics were difficult, and they're now held twice a year.

"We have 20 people who have already qualified for the graduation and have passed the GED exam, and several more will be joining them soon. It's the most we've ever had, and it's very encouraging," he says.

The tribe has been able to use some of the gambling proceeds to employ Yaquis. However, if a person does not have a high school diploma, part of the condition of hiring and continued employment is working toward a GED.

"The tribe is very clear on this," says Jeffery. "And it seems to be catching on."

Tom Danehy

Matt Nelson

You think you're busy? Check out this educator's schedule

The last time I was in El Torero Mexican Restaurant, Lute Olson was sitting no more than 4 feet away. In spite of his well-publicized troubles, he still engenders a hero's worship to many.

Four months later, I am sitting at the same table with Matt Nelson--and I cannot imagine a greater disparity between the two in terms of what constitutes a hero.

When Matt asks why I want to profile him, I remind him of our time together on July 4, 2007. In his job as summer-camp director at the Fenster School in Sabino Canyon, he is perched high atop a 60-foot telephone pole that serves as one end of a zip line. Standing on a tiny slab of wood, perhaps 3 feet square, he has been helping kids overcome the physical and emotional challenges (and terror!) involved in making this climb. He's been up there for more than two hours in 100-plus-degree heat, but not once does he give any indication that there's anywhere else he'd rather be.

Technically, his job up there is to transfer the climbers from one harness to another before sending them flying down the line 300 feet into the canyon. For those making the climb, however, he is alternately coach, therapist and savior. And when the kids ultimately make it to the top, he stands side by side with them as equals, looking out into the canyon and reminding them how the strength and courage it took to get to that spot can be used to scale other challenges in life.

During his seven-year tenure as camp director, Nelson has developed an affordable program that offers courses in ropes, climbing, environmental awareness, hiking and music. "But the real focus is on connecting kids with nature and each other. And the hidden agenda," he adds with a twinkle, "is in encouraging young people to understand that nature is our greatest teacher."

Nelson's true gift is the genuine enthusiasm he brings every day. It is a quality that amazes the parents, one that must be seen and experienced to be fully appreciated. It's a mindset he brings to all of his other jobs, including his work as an educator of middle and high school students, at Compass Health Care, and with the local Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program.

Working for St. Gregory College Preparatory School, Nelson has led two extended field trips to Africa, supervising high school kids charged with teaching primary school in remote Third World villages. "It's a chance for these relatively well-off, well-educated kids to see how most of the world is educated and lives."

With ICO, where he's served as the volunteer chairman for six years, he's helped guide hundreds of inner-city kids and families on trips into the wilderness and Arizona deserts. "People will only protect what they love, and they will only love what they know. So when it comes to social action, who will call or care about a pygmy owl or saguaro if they don't know what it is?" he asks.

An admitted travel junkie, Nelson is now an advocate of traveling with a purpose. This philosophy has connected him with two hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas and three trips to Argentina, where he estimates he's helped initiate and supervise the clearing of almost a ton of garbage from the 23,000-foot peak at Aconcagua. "That's probably the thing I'm most proud of," he says.

In his spare time, he does occasional work as an environmental archeologist and, on Thursday evenings as Matt Moon, he hosts KXCI FM 91.3's Global Rhythm Radio, where his enthusiasm for the music--like his enthusiasm for everything else--is infectious.

Jim Lipson

Laura Penny

She's spent the last 35 years of her life fighting for fairness

Laura Penny has been a feminist for 35 years, from the time when she was a 16-year-old fry cook at a pool snack bar--and got fired for being a girl. She was a strong girl, no doubt, but her employers dismissed her based on an assumption that she couldn't lift and dump the snack bar's big trash can, she says. It was patently unfair, and it pissed Penny off.

Since then, she has devoted herself to fighting for fairness. Armed with a degree in psychology, Penny gravitated toward working with marginalized populations; when she moved to Tucson in 1979, she got a job treating people with alcohol and drug problems, and even did a stint as a probation officer. Later, when her gay brother was the victim of a fatal hate crime, she started working for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks; she's currently on the board of Wingspan.

After Penny and her husband took a trip around the world with nothing but their backpacks--and Penny saw with her own eyes how badly women were treated in other countries--her desire to help was renewed. She got involved in women's politics, helping put pro-choice women in state and local government.

In 2004, she was named the executive director position at the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona, and she couldn't believe her luck--someone would pay her to work for social justice for females. The foundation, although it doesn't get a lot of press, has a hand in almost all of the worthy projects promoting equity and opportunity for women and girls in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties; in fact, it's invested more than $1.1 million in such projects. Some of them, you've certainly heard of--the YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club, Planned Parenthood--but the foundation has also gotten plenty of passionate but scrappy startups off the ground.

The Women's Foundation funds a whole range of projects centered on women's safety and fighting domestic violence, including treatment centers for domestic-violence victims. But its real goal is to promote social change so that violence doesn't happen in the first place, and so that women are more empowered in all capacities--even in the garage. "Girls With Tools," for example, teaches elementary-age girls to use woodworking power tools and is now operated by the YWCA. For girls a little older, there's Bio-Link, a current foundation grantee run through the UA that gears girls up for careers in science, technology, math and engineering.

One of Penny's favorite programs, Desert Dove Farm, actually focuses on males, stopping domestic violence at one of its sources by helping boys who come from families plagued by the problem.

Penny has a parable to explain her group's goal: "Rather than pulling the drowning woman out of the river, we want to go upstream and prevent her from falling in, in the first place. And if we can't keep her from falling in, we want to make sure she at least knows how to swim."

To spread the spirit of compassion, the foundation started Unidas, a program that gathers motivated high school girls from across Tucson and trains them in leadership, social justice and philanthropy, giving them $10,000 to allocate to an issue that's important to them at the end of the year. Several years ago, Penny recalls, one of those girls--a domestic-violence victim--gave a speech at a foundation luncheon describing the bond she developed with her peers in the program and talking about how she'd decided not to let her victimization stop her from achieving her dreams. The 650 people burst into spontaneous applause.

So, what does the social climate look like for women and girls nowadays? The Women's Foundation has just completed a report in answer to that question, to be published in 2009.

"There are some bright spots," Penny says. "Are things better than they were in 1973, when I got fired for being a girl? Yes. ... But we still have a long way to go. We're trying."

Anna Mirocha

Roxanne Prillwitz

This hero aids and defends Tucsonans suffering from mental illnesses

It was her older brother Bryan's diagnosis of schizophrenia which set the direction for 12-year-old Roxanne Prillwitz. Now 27 years later, she vividly recalls: "That pretty much shaped my life. I wondered how I could help him and others."

After pursuing an answer to that question in college, Prillwitz has been working at Our Place Clubhouse for the last dozen years. It's a downtown institution that runs both a restaurant and thrift shop staffed, in part, by its mentally ill members.

The clubhouse also has as an administrative office which involves up to 60 members daily. Among the services offered are job placement, the preparation and eating of meals together, and a chance to interact with other members through a resource-advocacy unit.

"This program is magical," is how one of the members assisting at the office put it recently.

Prillwitz describes her case-management work as both rewarding and frustrating. On the positive side, she discusses the immense satisfaction her work can provide.

"Someone comes in who doesn't talk to anyone," Prillwitz says with a tear on her cheek, "and they look and act marginal. But when you look them in the eye, and they know they are your equal, that is a sweet and mutually satisfying moment."

Another benefit of the job, Prillwitz adds, is getting to know the mentally ill people with whom she works.

"Our members choose to come here," Prillwitz observes, "and they come because they like it. When they're here, they tell us what's going on in their lives.

"At the same time," she continues, "they are giving back to the community. ... Here, they can be productive and be treated like human beings."

It was that attitude toward clubhouse members which led Prillwitz's boss, Mindy Bernstein, to suggest Prillwitz for recognition.

"She has been a consistent and strong advocate for people to get support and services," Bernstein says about Prillwitz. "She doesn't see our members as clients, but as people. She has an ease that enters into her relationship with them, and she has compassion to work with the more difficult situations."

Prillwitz also recognizes some of the difficulties in dealing with severe mental illness.

"It is a field which is extremely underfunded," she says about the support system for those who are seen as "throwaway people" by some. "We're trying to get them the care they need in an overburdened system."

Expanding on this point, Prillwitz says: "We see people at their best here, but we still see their suffering. It's easy to forget what a horrible, devastating disease this is. ... We have to fight the stigma of the disease, along with educating families and the general public about mental illness, because there is so much blame (associated with it)."

Prillwitz also wants politicians and the public to know about the boarding houses where some mentally ill people live.

"There's no licensing," she says about facilities which are often unsafe, "and there's nowhere the people who live there can make complaints."

At the same time, Prillwitz would like everyone to recognize the benefits that mentally ill people can bring to society.

"People with mental illness are valuable," she states emphatically. "They are part of our community and capable of great things."

Offering a specific example, Prillwitz is especially proud of what her brother has accomplished.

"He's really successful," she says proudly. "He's now an artist in graduate school at Michigan State University."

Dave Devine

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