Giving hope a voice

Gift of Voice’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan held its graduation in Edwardsville’s Eden Church on April 6. (From left,) co-facilitator Janet Darmour-Paul, graduate Marilyn Paul, graduate Gloria Blechle, graduate Jennifer Hatzel and Gift of Voice founder and WRAP facilitator AJ French pose for a picture while other graduates and facilitators enjoy light refreshments and conversation. Ten individuals completed the 10-week course and, in the words of substitute facilitator Patrick Norris, “successfully recaptured their lives.” Gift of Voice focuses on individual mental health recovery through classes such as WRAP, advocacy support for the community at large, and Christian responsibility toward mental health issues affecting church leaders.

“If you ever lose hope, you’ll remember the moment you got it back.” 

For Gift of Voice founder and Wellness Recovery Action Plan facilitator AJ French, that moment was in the summer of 2005 when she entered a training program dedicated to mental health recovery. 

“My life was spinning out of control,” French says. “It changed the trajectory of my life to see people living healthy lives even after undergoing far more traumatic situations.”

Funded by the Madison County Mental Health Board, the WRAP class held its graduation April 6 at its space in Edwardsville’s Eden Church. After 10 weeks of step-oriented classes on Thursday evenings, 10 individuals were honored by French, co-facilitator Janet Darmour-Paul and substitute facilitators Patrick Norris and Brenda Ringhausen.

Norris has worked with French in the past, and both attended the six-week training program to prepare future WRAP facilitators. 

“These graduates successfully recaptured their lives,” Norris says. “It’s not about avoiding the issue; it’s about taking control.”

Darmour-Paul adds to Norris’ sentiment. 

“There’s a stigma to being labeled with a mental health diagnosis, and WRAP is like getting out of prison,” Darmour-Paul says. “It’s a very precise, 10- to 12-week process and support group.”

Norris explains the setup: “We’d discuss the evening’s step in the program and focus on how important it is to find a solution for the individual and seeing why it’s significant to them. People get to identify what makes it work for them and the strength of the individual process.” 

One feature of the curriculum is the individualized “wellness toolbox,” which could include a number of everyday activities that bring joy or solace, such as singing in the shower. 

The graduation ceremony began with a recitation of French’s essay “A Call for Dignity.”

“People who live with mental health conditions deserve dignity: being worthy of respect or honor,” French says. “We deserve the same basic human rights that are applied to all members of society ... we deserve to not be considered undeserving.” 

Five of the ten graduates were able to attend the ceremony, each sharing what the program has meant to them, from the comfort of having a place to go to getting to know new people to seeing others in the community participate in an essential dialogue about the importance of mental health. 

“The key to wellness is the readiness and ability to respond in a healthy way,” Norris says. “We’ve got to have this dialogue.”

WRAP is one of the classes offered through the Gift of Voice, which incorporated in November 2016. French explains that the program includes three areas of focus: recovery education for the individual (as experienced through the recent WRAP class and the upcoming WRAP class dedicated to service members, veterans and their families); advocacy support for the community at large and Christian responsibility aimed toward the mental health of church leaders and clergy members.

In enacting advocacy support, Gift of Voice invites those who participate in public human service programs to attend Recovery & Empowerment Day on May 25 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. 

“It’s our chance to make our voices heard through our elected officials,” French says.  

The Dialog with Directors portion of Recovery & Empowerment Day will include the opportunity to speak with four department directors: Statewide Housing and Employment First Coordinator Lore Baker, Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Director Maria Bruni, Division of Developmental Disabilities Director Greg Fenton and Division of Mental Health Director Diane Knaebe. 

Gift of Voice’s role in Christian responsibility is evident in the upcoming Pastor Resource Day on July 19. 

“A woman I spoke to in New York was so disheartened that churches don’t address mental health issues,” French says. “Pastors and church leaders can also have mental health issues and should also be supported in getting their needs met.”

Gift of Voice’s mission is encapsulated in an internship opportunity, designed for those employed under the guidance of its mission to obtain the Certified Recovery Support Specialist credential. Those with this credential are “employed specifically to use their personal recovery experiences to facilitate and support the recoveries of others and to help shape the mental health system.” 

After completing 100 hours of education and 2,000 hours of supervised work experience in the mental health field, providing verified personal and professional references, and successfully completing an exam, individuals will help innovate the mental health field with their first-hand understanding of the recovery experience.

The organization is applying for nonprofit status for tax-deductible donations. The best method of financial support for advancing the organizational mission is to send your donation to the Gift of Voice, 903 N. Second St., Suite B, Edwardsville, IL 62025.

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