By Donald M. Fitch
MS Executive Director
Center for Career Freedom
It was in the fall of 99', Ira and I were having our weekly meeting at Starbucks in Larchmont. We would linger for hours in those big, plush club chairs sipping Lattes and snacking on cookies - caffeine and sugar - just the fuel two bi-polars needed to figure out their next career move.
We were discouraged. In spite of our years of experience, education and charm, we weren't getting any job offers. "You're overqualified" we were told. "You're too old and too smart to manage" was probably what they were thinking.
My vocational counselor said with my background I should start my own business again. Ira said he always dreamed of running a newspaper, though he had no experience.
Although I was ten years older, we had a lot in common; we both grew up in Westchester, graduated from N.Y.U. had built successful, respected careers, became parents, divorced, suffered mental breakdowns, were hospitalized , received SSDI and supported housing. We cooperated with our treatment; we took our meds, kept our therapy appointments, and were stabilized in the community. Here we were hanging out at Starbucks at midlife; reeling from the fall, struggling to regain control, self-respect and some of our former lives. The "hot-shots" were finally out of ideas and surviving on twenty dollars a day. Was this it?
We had no idea this was our milestone moment, the tipping point, the embarkation of not just another career, but a whole new life. We were only partially aware of the connection between our career choice, our lately acquired "street smarts" and our diagnosis.
According to Kay Jamison, Ph.D, there were quite a few characteristics common to both hypomania and creativity; lots of energy, fluid associational thought process, flights of ideas, rapid speech, grandiosity, over confidence, stubborn independence, etc.
These qualities (symptoms) combined with a strong work ethic and self discipline propelled us down our new path.
Ira gave birth to Mental Health News alone, in his third floor walk-up apartment in New Rochelle.
There were no employees, no investors, no mentors, just Ira, the PC and the cat.
I went back to Graduate School at LIU to finish up my MS in Counseling. I attended nights, going to CDT at White Plains Hospital some days and working other days as a Job Coach at MHA. My dream for a Center; a computer school with a mission of "rehabilitation and recovery leading to competitive employment" came from my own struggles. I believed I could make a real difference in our populations' lives by applying my business-consultant skills to the delivery of social services.
Funding my dream was realized when, on a whim, I added a budget page to a program design paper I wrote for a course in Psychometrics. I sent it to Steven Friedman, Commissioner of Westchester's Department of Community Mental Health.
The interview with DCMH's Program Director was not going well - I was coming across too corporate; they kept asking me if I had any personal experience working with this population and intimated perhaps I was more interested in the money than the mission. Out of exasperation I stammered "but I'm a consumer, this is personal, not business". They gave me a grant for 50k. (I often think back to that moment; what if I hadn't disclosed? Would they have given me the grant?)
Three DCMH Commissioners have supported the Center as a Drop-In (1770) these past ten years and we are very grateful for their continued support.
The current contract expires in December 2010, I'll be seventy-one - seems like a good time to retire and go back to consulting.
Our NYS Department of Education Business School license was facilitated by the Pro Bono Partnership which supplies first class legal services to non-profits. I successfully completed our 501 (c) (3) non-profit application and secured certification from Microsoft as an Office User Training Center.
My son Thomas, an IT exec with the College Board at the time got them to donate twenty computers and we were in business. With a great staff of six, we trained over two hundred fifty students the first year. We've served over fifteen hundred since.
What we were not prepared for was the scores of students asking for our help in securing government benefits; disability income, housing, food stamps, half-price bus fare, legal & debt assistance. We found ourselves scrambling to find the appropriate government agency, eligibility criteria, application forms, required documentation, earning penalties, etc. We had to learn the code, read the fine print and translate it all in layman's terms. To meet this need we developed a series of Case Manager's Toolkits (see www.economicsofrecovery.org).
We then added a fourth activity; we transformed our community meetings into focus groups, administered opinion surveys, conducted proto type testing, web content development and economics of recovery research. The more we listened, the more questions were raised and the more we searched the web and interviewed officials for answers. So many of the problems appeared to tie-back to monetary or typically bureaucratic issues.
As a business consultant, ("someone who is paid a lot of money to come in and tell the boss what everyone already knows but, does not have the courage to tell him"), I could hand the CEO unflattering charts and they would thank me and pay me because they knew there were always problems that needed to be identified and fixed. It was one of those painful facts of doing business. You can ignore them at your own peril.
However, in the world of Government, I found when I tried to show my unsolicited "truthful charts" to the Chief Execs - I think they thought I was trying to blackmail them! I was being disloyal, a troublemaker.
Suddenly I had morphed from Messenger past Advocate to Whistleblower. Publishing studies about "The Homeless of Westchester County" or "How SSI Recipients are prevented from working their way off Government Benefits" or "How state-run facilities ignore the Olmstead decision and cost taxpayers two hundred thousand dollars a year", etc., didn't help us make any friends.
For seven years we submitted unsolicited proposals with cool research charts and street smart case manager tools to dozens of Government agencies and Foundations. Sometimes we'd get polite replies declining, but mostly, there was silence.
Being in the trenches of direct care among hundreds of recipients and fellow providers we are able to validate our tools every day. But the Grant Review Committees and decision makers in the corner offices were not impressed. There was a disconnect, a divide we weren't able to overcome.
Then along came the Internet. Our tools and charts could reach thousands of providers and recipients around the world at a keystroke for pennies. Suddenly, funding wasn't critical and we could avoid the paperwork and the committees. In the five hours it took for us to get to Albany and back, we could develop half-a-dozen e mailings. We are now able to reach over four-thousand professionals per mailing and our charts are being downloaded at the astounding rate of twenty-five percent!
The Internet is like a huge, freewheeling Community Meeting. You don't have to know a lobbiest or be a member of a powerful union or professional association or "pay to play" to get yourself heard.
Imagine President Obama walking into the Democratic Club House in Chicago just a few short years ago - "I'm running for the Office of the President of the United States and I need your support". "And, I'll need about five-hundred million for the campaign". Could President Obama have been elected without the internet's power to connect him directly to the voters?
Whether you are running for office or tired of turning away from the financial waste and patient abuse, you can make a difference. It's never been easier to do the right thing.
The Center for Career Freedom is located in White Plains, New York and can be reached at (914) 288-9763. Visit us at www.economicsofrecovery.org