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Tom Watkins President-CEO 2013

Tom Watkins

The word “advocate” has been tossed around quite a bit under the Capitol Dome over the years. So much so, I sometimes expect to see someone wearing a colorful costume, a cap and a brazen capital “A” pressed to their chest ready to leap the Capitol Rotunda in a single bound.

There are many causes that claim strong advocates that trot to Lansing to play the legislative game of math — pluses and minuses, struggling to get more money added to the budget and keep harmful legislative bills from ever seeing the light of day.

Advocates differ from “lobbyists.” They are not hired guns. They often do their work on a volunteer basis or slightly above volunteer status as a paid executive or staffer for a non-profit or government organization. These individuals are passionate and motivated by adding value and making a difference for a cause or public good. Advocates don’t walk around trolling the Capitol halls looking for a legislative committee chair to take to lunch. They do not control multiple political pacs and are not fund raising “bundlers” ready to drop the maximum political contributions as a means to help “educate” lawmakers about whoever has hired them.

Let’s call advocates the Rodney Dangerfield of the various species that swim with the sharks in the state Capitol aquarium. I know, and have known, many good men and women who plead for improving the human condition as advocates in Lansing. I admire them, people like: Hank Johnson, ARC- Detroit, Leon Judd, executive director of NAMI – Metro Detroit, George Gaines, former deputy director of public health for the City of Detroit and Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority Board member. The list may not be a “who’s who” on the Lansing inner circle, but to a person they have added value and have helped make Michigan a better place for vulnerable people, our fellow citizens.

A Shining Light — Kevin Fischer:  One special “advocate” for a special cause is Kevin Fischer, the executive director of National Alliance on Mentally illness. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has become the nation’s voice on mental illness, a nationwide organization with affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country.

More than 60 million people in this country suffer some type of mental health problem each year. Nearly 14 million of those live daily with its most serious forms — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Mental illness skips no zip code. Mental illness doesn’t care about your level of education, income or class, though not everybody in this society has equal access to treatment. This is what Kevin Fischer struggles to address each day.

Kevin has no super organizational budget. He surely can’t afford a multi-client, Lansing lobbyist and if he is buying you lunch, it is likely coming out of his own pocket, not a padded expense account. Yet, he has as worthy and powerful message to share as anyone under the Capitol Dome. He wants better resources, quality treatment and research for persons with mental illnesses. Mental illness impacts our family members, friends, neighbors and communities.

Mental Health is Personal:  When mental illness strikes someone you love, it is devastating.

Kevin quit his job at Meijer Corporate Office in Grand Rapids in July of 2009 to care for his young adult son, Dominique, diagnosed with a serious mental illness. He helped his son manage the labyrinth of treatment programs. For the next year Dominique’s care was his full time job. He took his son to therapy appointments four days a week and tried to keep him engaged in his treatment plan. His job of supporting his son ended with his suicide June 27, 2010.

Kevin was devastated and emotionally unprepared to return to the world, let alone work and needed to find a way to live with his grief. In late 2010 his wife, Sonya, discovered NAMI on the Internet and suggested he learn more about them. Kevin joined NAMI-MI in 2011 and later that year was asked to join the NAMI Michigan Board of Directors.

Dominique Fischer:  During the same period of time, trying to find some good in the loss of his son he established the Dominique Fischer Memorial Foundation, initially with the hope of funding a small scholarship in his memory at Detroit Catholic Central High School. Dominique loved being a Catholic Central Shamrock.

Finding Meaning from Agony and Grief:  Kevin found meaning in helping others who faced the same struggles of caring for and supporting persons with mental illness. He pushed to educate others about the evils of stigma that prevented loved ones from seeking the proper diagnosis, treatment and support for their illness.

When Kevin left his Meijer job in 2009, he had no idea it would lead to becoming executive director of NAMI-MI. He accepted the role of a struggling nonprofit because he realized NAMI was underutilized and it provided him a forum to channel his emptiness, grief and despair into helping others. His goal is to educate everyone and raise the level of awareness about mental illness to the point that we reach true parity with other physical illnesses and eradicate the stigma. His fear is that it will not happen fast enough, but may mobilizing others. NAMI’s message is spreading exponentially.

Despair to Inspiration:  Kevin’s inspiration comes from Dominique. He knows his son would expect nothing less of him than that he try to assure no one else and certainly no father would feel the pain he felt with the loss of Dominique. Kevin gathers strength from remembering how badly his “friends” treated his son after discovering he was different because of his mental illness.

Today, Kevin pulls inspiration from the brave people living with mental illness every day who feel alone but shouldn’t. Kevin advocates for quality mental health for all. His standard of care is as simple as it is profound: “If the quality of care is not good enough for some one you love, it’s not good enough. Every waking hour Kevin Fischer works his heart out to make it better for the next son or daughter with a mental illness.

Kevin wants policy-makers to know that we are all affected by mental illness. Every person in every community. He desperately wants persons living with mental illness to receive the same respect, treatment and quality of life as those not directly affected. He wants all to know NAMI is here to help and that recovery is possible.

Kevin Fischer is a values-driven advocate. Michigan is a better place because of his advocacy. Kevin, with the support of the Flinn Foundation and the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority helped produce: Opening Minds-Ending Stigma A Youth Perspective 

Kevin Fischer is the proud executive director of NAMI Michigan. Reach him at: 517.853.0951 http://www.namimi.org http://www.facebook.com/namiofmi

Tom Watkins is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (www. dwmha.com). He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director.

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