SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022 : WOMENS CONNECTIONS
May’s story writer, Cari Kelley, was our first featured writer in “Sharing our Stories” back in February 2021. We are delighted to share a second story from Cari. Now in honor of NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH MONTH, Cari encourages us all to notice what is going on with the people around us and to help them make connections to needed resources. Her very thoughtful story describes how connections have made a difference for her as a mother of twins and how connections have helped her two wonderful now-adult children to face challenges and grow from them.
Cari Kelley is the very smart and very devoted mother of two loving and amazing children, Jacquie and Calvin. She works full-time as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager at United Way of Northwest Vermont. Cari also runs her own travel business, www.carimeawaytravels.com and with her daughter, Jacquie, she is the co-founder of www.wheelsforjacquiefoundation.org Cari lives in Grand Isle, Vermont with her incredibly loving and supportive partner, Greg.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but for me, every day is about being aware of the mental health of those I love. I am the proud parent of 24-year-old twins, Calvin and Jacquie. They might have been born 8 minutes apart, but I’m always amazed at just how different they are.
Jacquie was diagnosed at the age of two with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. What does this mean? The muscles in her body atrophy over time and she is one of the most determined people I know. When she sets her mind to accomplish something, she stays focused and sees it through. For example, she had told herself that she wanted to stay on her feet until 8th grade graduation so she could walk in and out of her ceremony, which she did. That summer, she made the decision to start using her scooter more, and today, is using her wheelchair full-time. That is one of many stories.
Calvin was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 5. It took us a very long time to figure out what the “trigger” was and what we found shows the size of his heart. In a counseling appointment in the early years he told the counselor of the pain he felt for his sister and his desire to take her disability so she could live a “normal” life. It’s what’s called Survivor Guilt and it was deep. He just could not wrap his head around why Jacquie and not him and the unfairness of it all. He still struggles with this question today.
Little did he know then, Jacquie would not trade her disability for anything. It’s what has made her the caring and determined woman she is today. But, for Calvin, he gets caught in his head and the guilt, depression and anxiety take over. We have had many doctor and counseling appointments, suicide scares, and the bullying from classmates when he was in school, starting in elementary school, was heartbreaking.
This article is not only focused on Mental Health, but also connections. For those living with Mental Health challenges, connection is everything. For me, in the school years, it was the special educator within the school that kept both of us going. She attended every meeting at the alternative school that Calvin was sent to from 1st to 5th grade and fought alongside me to get him back into our community school. She stayed as a special educator at our school until Calvin graduated from 12th grade. She felt so connected to us that she made a commitment to not leave us behind. Without her, I would have been so lost and not have had the support I so desperately needed. I am forever grateful for her.
For Calvin, I am very humbled to say, that his connection to support is me. I don’t say that lightly. There are times that when he calls and I see his number pop up, I hold my breath and pray that he’s not in crisis. I just never know what I’m going to hear on the other end of the line, but I am so blessed that he reaches out to me, pretty much every day, even to just check in and tell me he loves me. He lives in Wisconsin near my family, and about a thousand miles from me, but he knows I’m always here and don’t sit in judgement. My partner, Greg, also is one of his biggest fans and always willing to help when needed.
What Calvin has been lacking since moving to Wisconsin in 2019 is a connection to medical supports. That changed on April 23rd of this year. It was a Saturday, and he called me around 7:30 pm, and was in crisis. He had a tough breakup in May of 2021 and has really struggled since. I have received a number of calls since that event, but this one was different. He was contemplating self-harm, but also, reaching out to ask about seeking help. After we talked, he agreed that he needed to go to the Emergency Room and get connected to medical services that he needed. This was not the first time that he has contemplated self-harm, and not the first time that he has been in the emergency room, but it was the first time that he decided he truly needed help and was ready to accept it. I am hopeful that he continues down this path and works with the supports that have now been put in place for him. He has the support of his employer and loves his job, so I’m feeling confident.
I am not going to lie. Being on the other end of that phone call is incredibly difficult and I rely heavily on my faith. I try to stay calm and listen, but after I hang up, the tears typically flow for a bit. I love this young man so much, and because of all he has gone through, he is only truly happy if he is helping people whether through his work or his volunteer interests. His core values are well-rounded and the love he has for his sister melts my heart.
I share my story because I want to highlight the importance of connection and help break the stigma of mental health. I am honored to work for the United Way of Northwest Vermont as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager. United Way focuses on five key strategies in our community. Meeting Basic Needs (housing, transportation, food insecurity), Advancing Employment through our Working Bridges program, Supporting Families, Reducing Substance Misuse, and Promoting Mental Health. In my conversations with CEO’s and employees, Promoting Mental Health resonates with so many. Businesses are trying to meet employees and their families where they are and trying to figure out the supports that are needed. United Way has started the Mental Health Initiative, and as stated on our website, “People experiencing mental health challenges and the systems designed to help them have been pushed to a breaking point. Already one of the hardest areas to address, mental health needs have worsened throughout COVID-19.
Emergency department beds are crowded with children and adults experiencing mental health crises who do not have timely access to treatment programs. Depression and anxiety, especially among youth, have spiked during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, we need to come together to strengthen mental health resources for ourselves and our neighbors.” If you want to learn more about this work, visit https://unitedwaynwvt.org/mental-health-initiative.
In closing, connection is critical for every facet of our lives. If we don’t have connection, what do we have? We look for it in our life partner, we look for it in our daily lives, and when someone is in crisis, a connection can be lifesaving, literally. I just ask that people be aware of those around you. Don’t jump to conclusions because you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life. Instead, be open to being supportive and helping to connect them to what they need. You would be a hero in their eyes and possibly a life saver. Who wouldn’t want to live with that feeling.