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Part 3: Received With Open Arms

It’s hard to wrap your head around what’s going on in another person’s mind, let alone if that person has mental illness. But this month, Mental Health Awareness Month—and every day at Big Sister League of San Diego—we try. To shed light on these efforts, we’re sharing one residents’ journey in four candid perspectives, now from one of our longest standing board members.

They say when one door closes another one opens, but at Big Sister League of San Diego the adage isn’t that simple. So, we tweak it a tidge.

“We’re all here for a reason: We have mental health diagnoses that don’t allow us to live and function in the world outside,” Deb explains. “There’s been countless times, especially in the morning, right when I open my eyes, that I go into the office and say I need a pep talk. The door is always open until it’s closed, and the reason it’s closed is because someone is pouring their heart out or getting encouragement.”

But when that door closes, there’s always a fellow resident, staff member, or even a BSL board member standing with arms wide open.

“A week ago, I was at the house and Deb said she was having a bad day. She asked for a hug. I said, ‘Of course!’ A few days later, she said, ‘I’m better,’” recounts Toni Lawrence, who’s held the stance for 25 years.

Now serving as treasurer on our executive board, she and fellow members are a fundraising arm to the nonprofit and a support system to staff, “and the staff are there to serve the residents, who we’re all ultimately working for.”

Each board member brings with them a particular expertise, from organizational management to fundraising and strategic communication, but most importantly they bring empathy.

“Every one of us knows somebody who lives with mental illness, and I’m no exception,” say Toni, who joined BSL by way of a colleague who was also on the board. After attending a few fundraising events, she felt a staunch pull on her heartstrings.

“Another part that was appealing to me was the history of BSL. For almost 80 years now, we’ve been trying to meet the needs of women in these unfortunate circumstances. This is a group of our society that I think gets overlooked,” she says.

“We provide something that really helps them in their life: a safe home where they’re not judged. They live with people who understand them.”

And the board’s job? To nurture that home, Toni says, by having monthly dinners with the residents, delivering food from the food bank, and importantly providing staff the resources to thrive. As Deb herself attests, “staff—my cheerleaders, coaches, and advocates—are so crucial in maintaining my independence.”

“We cannot understand what a person with mental illness goes through every day, depending on where they are in their journey," Toni underscores. "But we can enhance their environment and give them a helping hand."

Next week, Deb’s mother shares how Big Sister League of San Diego has impacted her family.

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