Over 30 years ago, a group of Schenectady parents founded a support group to help one another cope with the effects of their family members’ mental illness.
The Schenectady Relatives Group became incorporated as AMI-Schenectady in 1988 and has been meeting on a regular schedule ever since. In 1998 this group officially changed its name to NAMI Schenectady to reflect its affiliation with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In the beginning there was a family support group called Schenectady Relatives which began in October 1969 led by Evelyn Holmblad with the help of Virginia Piggott and Mariam Carreker as a project of the Mental Health Association of Schenectady County. It met twice monthly and continued with Clare Weiner and later with Johnel Bushell as facilitators and Helen Roben until at least 1977. A second family support group was led by Judith Winchester of the Mental Health Association in 1979 with Johnel Bushell as facilita-tor and a third group was then established by Judith Beyer, Patricia Goins, Wanda Neff and Marie Pletenik in May 1981 with Lisa Kagan and Anne Catherman as facilitators. Later Dolores Weifenbach was facilitator and then Ann Lemmond led the group to serve family members. (the above came from Patt Goins, a founding member). When my wife Mary and I joined the support group in 1981 Ann Lemmond was in charge of the twice a month meetings in the sitting room inside Waters House across from the Unitarian Church on Wendell Ave. She had Marie Pletenik and Mary Kay Muccigrosso helping. She was leader during the 1980s with several others coming to meetings including Flora Ramonowski, Patt Goins, Marilyn Canoll, Carol Fry, Tony Cremo, May Mancuso, Paul and Joann Pagiotas, Judy Beyer and ourselves, Roy and Mary Neville.
In April 1983 Ann Lemmond wrote in a three-page typed newsletter that Schenectady Relatives had already affiliated with NAMI – National Alliance for Mental Illness. She wrote a Schenectady evening social club for consumers is operating two evenings a week. Dr. Rajnish Chaudlhry, head of Psychiatry at Ellis, is the guest speaker in April. City Police Court Judge Cliff Harrrigan would be the guest in June with John Vallely, social worker involved with the courts and jail. In December she wrote that Carolyn Callner, administrator of mental health services at Ellis and attorney James Martin had been guests; also, four members of the support group gave the families’ view at an Ellis staff meeting. And Bill DeVita, head of RSS, Inc. in Albany, spoke in December.
In January 1984 Ann reported that the Cara Club Continuing Treatment Program will be described to the relatives by Carole Ryan, its director. In February national author Kayla Bernheim is speaking at the AMI-NYS winter conference in Albany. In March, Liz VanderHoof, director of the Halfway House in Schenectady, is speaker and in April it is Catherine McHugh of the state Commission on Quality of Care.
Ann Lemmond’s newsletter in April 1985 remarked: I assure you we will continue to meet as a support group every Monday evening at the Unitarian House and the door is always open. She noted there will be a series of 10-week mental illness workshops at the Ellis Hospital Mental Health clinic starting in May led by Jon Shapiro. On May 9, Dominion House, Emmanuel Community Foundation and Jones Boarding Home are sponsoring a mental health month dinner at Schenectady Community College with Burt Pepper speaking. A Victorian high tea will be held at the home of Harriet and Ken Comfort on May 19.
Schenectady Relatives is now almost four years old, she wrote. For the first 2 1/2 years we were partly funded by money from the Schenectady Mental Health Association which no longer exists. As a result we must ask for a donation of $10 per family–it’s a donation, not a membership fee.
In 1984 Roy started a vocational group to press for changes in the sheltered workshop that CDPC was running on Catalyn Street and
we started several projects at the high school for consumers including woodworking and computer classes. We also did community
gardening at the county farm in Glenville with consumers for several years starting in the mid-1980s. We merged with Ann Lemmond’s
group which broadened into an executive group with Joann Pagiotas as president in 1987. The larger group agreed to join the National
Alliance for the Mentally Ill (then called AMI) as the Schenectady affiliate. We prepared bylaws and incorporation papers with
the help of attorney Michael Kelley Maggs. The chapter was incorporated in February 1988.
In May-June 1988 we read that Eileen Dorsey of CDPC came to talk on family concerns. Helpers are wanted for the High Tea in Mayat the Lupe home. Jack Cadalso was appointed director of the county Office of Community Services. Helpers for Macy’s fund raiserwere Jan Brewer, Carole Fry and Shirley Dinsmore. Ann Lemmond, Pat Goins and Mary C Muccigrosso spoke atAlbany MedicalCollege and SUNY School of Social Work to give a family viewpoint.
In Sept. 1988 the AMI-S newsletter reported Bill DeVita plans to open a program to put elderly people to work, called HELP. Itwould later employ young men and women as well, and it still runs. We were urged to write letters of support to Willia regional director, Kevin Cleary and John Sheets of the Office of Mental Health.
In Oct. 1988 AMI Schenectady elected new officers and board members at an annual meeting held at the Hellenic Center. We plan tohold our first countywide educational conference this fall, in the Ellis Hospital auditorium with guest speaker Dr. Schoenfeld. Inother news, the sheltered workshop moved to Van Vranken Ave where Marty’s Hardware is now. An open house and dinner for clients, staff and ourselves would be held in the St. John’s School basement on Liberty Street on Nov 2.
Highlights of the 1990s
Too much detail here to keep track of. I’ll have to pick highlights from some newsletters of the period. We had a lot of meetings and our members seemed to be more active then than now. Our Nov. 1990 newsletter noted we would invite Jacquelyn Merrick, director of pharmacy at CDPC, to speak on drug interactions, and I recall she was very well versed in the subject. In December we sponsored a dinner together with Holly Clark, director of the Ellis evening social club, for consumers and families. The dinners became a staple
in the early 1990s when the social club met in the basement of St. John the Baptist Church. The men cooked and served the food—I remember one of us carving the turkey with a new gadget, an electric knife. Another thing about the 1990s, for all our complaints at the time, our adult children with these illnesses could find housing and sooner or later found services in our city. Housing came through the federal HUD section 8 rent vouchers or the state’s supported apartments, started in the 1990s. The kids were able to get on SSI or SSDI and had all their clinic and hospital care and prescription drug bills paid by Medicaid without much fuss. Costs hadn’t yet skyrocketed. Someone who needed hospital care was put in a bed and allowed to stay three or four weeks. The new antipsychotic meds were just coming in. Only later in the 1990s did length of stay policies change drastically to limit an inpatient psychiatric stay to a few days. At the same time more activities cropped up in the community to fill the day like continuing treatment, the workshop, evening social club, intensive case management and jobs programs. These have now largely disappeared.
In May 1991 we planned and organized a countywide educational conference with Ellis, county Office of Community Services andMohawk Opportunities, drawing a large audience. We continued these sessions through the 1990s, mixing locations such as Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, the Unitarian Church, Paramount Lounge (now SCAP building) and possibly at the community college. We received $970 in funds from the AMI High Tea in 1991, a nice return after several of our members helped out. We tried hard to get the word out about the illnesses, treatment and housing needs. Our pamphlet, telling what we did, was put in doctor’s offices. Some of us spoke at luncheons of the Rotary Club and other organizations. We awarded scholarships to four
members to attend the NAMI-NYS conference in Albany. Some of us traveled to NYC several years in a row for the annual Columbia U. Schizophrenia Conference, which had the best information for us. Unfortunately it was later revealed that some of these doctors were taking money from drug companies while promoting their drugs to us.
Our AMI-S newsletter reached over 130 readers in early 1990 (it now goes to over 250). In April 1990 Jack Cadalso, then county OCS director, told us the state was transfering former patients at Utica State Hospital to CDPC and into outpatient facilities here, having an effect on workloads. CDPC filled several service gaps sending staff to the clinics and continuing treatment center, known as shared staff, and by operating a sheltered workshop here. In May NAMI invited John Dorflinger, head of the Child Guidance Clinic, to speak; the clinic was located in a house on Union Street. A newsletter notes that Ellis Hospital was among the first general hospitals in the state to open an inpatient psych unit in 1959. Ellis also began its outpatient clinic services at that time. In 1991 Ellis opened a second clinic on Franklin St. (now operated by CDPC)
and opened a continuing treatment center on State Street with an evening and weekend social club, a hospital crisis emergency service and outreach services employing intensive case managers. We met with three of our area’s state legislators in March and April 1991and later with Ralph Comanzo, chairman of the county legislature’s Human Resources committee and Bob McEvoy, county manager. Flora Ramonowski traveled to Washington, DC to
attend a national AMI legislative seminar and meet our Congress members. May Mancuso manned a table at Schenectady Community College. We distributed videotapes to area TV stations as public service announcements. We’re alrady planning for the AMI fall education conference in concert with Mohawk Opportunities, Ellis, county OCS, and consumers. Jack Cadalso and staff have moved to offices at 1 Broadway Center (Lottery Bldg.) Susan Chase and staff of Ellis mental health clinic have moved to new space at 216 Lafayette St. In July we joined Ellis social club to sponsor a steak roast and picnic at Collins Park, Scotia, with swimming and softball. I recall picking up fresh cut sirloin steaks from Sysco Foods Center in Colonie and we slapped them on the charcoal grill; they cost a few hundred dollars. Our fall mental health conference, jointly sponsored with Ellis, the county and others, focused on schizophrenia with speaker Bill McFarland of the NY Psychiatric Institute. It was held at the Paramount Lounge and I remember US Rep. Sam
Stratton looking in on us. Our Sept 1991 newsletter says most Medicaid recipients will become part of group medical plans like the HMO’s in our area, with county social services districts responsible for developing managed care plans for their localities. An exception would be “special care” populations, including persons with mental illness. So it leftt up in the air whether people with serious mental illness would be exempt from managed health care plans. Seems early for them to be speaking of managed care and special needs plans back then. Both schemes are part of current policies for managing Medicaid mental health care in NY. Another item states that Ellis mental health clinic has been approved to administer the anti-schizophrenia drug clozapine under the state Medicaid program. As I recall, there was opposition to having the drug manufacturer, Sandoz, employ its labs for blood testing and this irritated the US government, which delayed clozapine’s reaching patients. My son began on clozapine in 1991, one of the first in the clinic to receive it, thanks to intervention of Susan Chase, the Ellis clinic manager.
In December 1991 Martin Cirincione, county public defender, and Colleen Farnan, staff social worker, described the role of the defender’s office. Marty Cirincione went on to a distinguished career in state and federal criminal justice positions, if I’m not mistaken. A January newsletter quotes him as saying defense attorneys weren’t trained to deal with individuals who are mentally ill. Miss Farnan said the alternative sentencing program was started to keep defendants out of jail by finding a treatment or residence program or putting him on probation. That sounds just like what the current defense attorney for alternative sentencing, Debbie Slack-Bean, told us last month.
In January 1992 we would hear Cliff Zucker, executive director of Disability Advocates, Inc. of Albany, talk on the Protection and Advocacy program he heads. The agency speaks for consumers and sometimes opposes families in court. It also has challenged state policies that have held mentally ill people in substandard adult homes and won major lawsuits on behalf of these clients against the state.
Dear site visitors: Time forces me to quit at this point. Will continue sometime in the future. Thanks for reading along. Much more to report but it’s a whale of a job to go over a hefty pile of back newsletters and try to think back about where we’ve come from to the present. Have to get this together by our dinner date on Dec. 20 which is just ahead. Keep the faith! (Roy Neville)