Group's golf tournament will raise money and hope On Our Own supports mentally ill residents

September 15, 1996|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Members of On Our Own of Howard County Inc. -- a nonprofit advocacy group for the mentally ill -- hope that their golf tournament Thursday will raise enough money so that members without cars can continue to be transported to their monthly meetings.

All 40 members have had episodes of mental illness that have caused some to lose their jobs, homes and cars, in addition to their independence and self-esteem.

The group is a chapter of On Our Own of Maryland, an offshoot of On Our Own Inc., a national, Baltimore-based group founded in 1981 by Peg Sullivan -- who had been hospitalized with mental illness -- to provide support and advocacy for others who were being treated for mental illness.

"None of us are ashamed," said Barbara D. Peterson, a former executive director of On Our Own of Howard County and member of the group since 1992. "We have an illness. I am your next-door neighbor."

Proceeds from the tournament at the Willow Springs Golf Course in West Friendship will enable the Howard group to maintain a van that is used to transport its members. Last year's tournament raised $2,000 -- enough to pay for the vehicle's gas, insurance and upkeep.

But getting members out of the house to the meetings is only one of the Howard group's goals. The organization also promotes self-sufficiency among its members and, through various educational programs, encourages them to be advocates for the mentally ill.

Members also receive emotional support from each other, when no one else can truly understand the stigma and despair of mental illness.

"I had lost two friends to suicide," said Peterson, a 40-year-old Columbia resident who has had bouts of mental illness since she was 19. She became involved in the Howard County chapter of On Our Own after attending a conference of On Our Own of Maryland.

"I went to the conference and heard a lot of success stories" from people who were dealing with mental illness, she said.

The Howard On Our Own chapter had stopped meeting, so Peterson became involved in its revitalization.

"We started meeting in '91," said Peterson, who had recruited some of her friends who were also sharing her grief. "We got the membership up to around 10 members and started meeting at the Growth Center," a state agency that provides a community rehabilitation program to people with mental illness.

"All we knew at that time was that we had lost two friends," she said.

Since that time, members have learned about overcoming the stigma of mental illness, getting the best care from the mental health system, identifying various aspects of mental illness and understanding the side effects of medications.

Workshops have trained members to become advocates for the mentally ill, and members want to become more active on the state and local levels regarding such matters as housing, welfare and insurance.

Due to problems after a recent surgery on her knee, Judy Mullinix, one of the organizers of the original On Our Own group in Howard County, began a push for better post-operative medical care.

The private, nonprofit agency that provided her care addressed her concerns by issuing a written protocol for medical needs they would respond to.

"I like the advocacy," said Mullinix, a 51-year-old Guilford resident who said she lives in housing for low-income disabled people. "That has always been my interest. I like to think that I can make a difference in consumers' lives."

During the past three years, the group has concentrated mostly on raising money and applying for grants from local, state and federal agencies. In addition to the van expenses, money is needed for the monthly social activities and for holiday dinners that cheer members who have no family.

"We are in dire need of funds," said Lucille Balthasar, the current executive director of On Our Own of Howard County. She said the group also needs donated space in which to meet.

Balthasar, a 53-year-old Oakland Mills resident, said she joined On Our Own five years ago out of a "need for companionship" after a monthlong hospitalization.

"As you progress, you become integrated into the community," said Balthasar, who has been in charge of several fund-raisers for the organization and is on the board of On Our Own of Maryland. She also serves on the Howard County Mental Health Advisory Board and is a substitute teacher in Howard County.

Peterson stressed that such involvement is the goal of the group's members. "We are not sitting home waiting for a welfare check. When we can't work, we are volunteering," she said.

"The group has given us a sense of empowerment. Once you get that education and information that's out there, you are your own person -- on your own -- independent of the system, where most of us want to be."

The On Our Own golf tournament fund-raiser begins at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Willow Springs Golf Course in West Friendship. The $75 fee per golfer includes the cart, greens fees, barbecue and drinks.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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