When Kathy Brandt and Lynn Shull first met through NAMI Colorado Springs, their connection was sparked by the shared experience — and pain — of fiercely loving and struggling to support someone with a mental illness.
Almost 15 years later, their bond is based on so much more, including major personal victories and exponential growth that they’ve helped bring to NAMI. And that knowledge buoys the rest of us as we have to say goodbye to both Kathy and Lynn in early 2021.
For Kathy, January marked the end of her second six-year term on NAMI’s board of directors. Meanwhile, in February, Lynn is stepping down from her role as programs and volunteer manager to pursue other passions.
“For more than a decade, Lynn and Kathy have been at the heart and soul of NAMI's mission to serve those who live with mental illness and their families,” says Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director. “They've changed NAMI for the better and helped us grow in big ways. I'm so grateful for both of them.”
FROM STUDENTS TO TEACHERS
Kathy first learned of NAMI in the early 2000s, while struggling with a mental health issue in her family. A flier led her to a NAMI presentation at First United Methodist Church, where she talked with a volunteer named Gayle Rappold. “It was my first encounter with another family member, someone who had ‘been there, done that,’ someone who knew my pain and fear, someone who didn’t judge me or the one I loved because of illness. I couldn’t enroll in that Family-to-Family class fast enough.”
Empowered by what she learned in Family-to-Family, Kathy, who worked by day as a writing instructor, started volunteering with NAMI. One day, she was handing out Family-to-Family fliers, herself, at the Woodland Park doctor’s office where Lynn worked. “She was hoping that I would share it with my patients,” Lynn remembers, “but I needed it.”
Lynn describes herself as “extremely broken” at the time. Her husband, Tyler, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years before, and the two of them had struggled to fully understand and manage the diagnosis. In addition, around the time she started class, Lynn’s brother, who lived with severe depression, was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
“My brother's family kept my brother's illness a very big secret … and Tyler and I were doing the same thing,” she says. “My brother had no idea that Tyler was battling his illness as well at that time. So here we were, two families — and my brother and I were really close, which is even more tragic — who were unable to communicate.”
When Lynn came to Family-to-Family, Kathy was her teacher. (Kathy also served as program coordinator and as a NAMI board member during this very grassroots, all-volunteer era.) Struck by both the love and pain she felt coming from Lynn, Kathy checked up on her frequently during the course — and then afterward, when Lynn’s brother succeeded in another suicide attempt.
Lynn says this one-two punch — her experience in Family-to-Family, and her brother’s death — fueled a passion to fight mental health stigma. She became a Family-to-Family teacher, and excelled. In 2010, Kathy, now serving as board president, asked her to coordinate the program as a volunteer.
LIVING ‘BEST LIVES’
In 2012, Kathy convinced the NAMI board to hire its first executive director, with funding from local philanthropist Clay Taylor of the Bjorkman Foundation. The new ED, Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, heard Lynn’s ideas for gathering information and setting up systems and opened up a five-hours-per-week paid position, which was all the organization could afford at the time. As NAMI grew, five hours became 10, and then 20. Soon, Lynn was the full-time programs and volunteer manager, coordinating 100-plus volunteers, a full suite of educational programs and support groups, and serving on mental health committees around El Paso and Teller counties.
Kathy, meanwhile, was wrapping up her first term as a board member — one highlighted by her colleagues nominating her for NAMI’s 2012 Outstanding NAMI Member Award, which she accepted at the national conference that summer. She took two years off, during which Monkshood Press published the deeply personal memoir she co-authored with her son, Max Maddox.
In 2014, Kathy was re-elected to the board. In her second term, she’s helped NAMI grow financially and in terms of board representation, and been instrumental in every major organizational decision, including the sale of the 510 E. Willamette Ave., office where she spent so many hours as a volunteer.
She’s also continued working closely with Lynn, especially in coordinating Crisis Intervention Team training, which equips local law enforcement to respond more effectively to mental health-related calls.
“She’s done so much to help NAMI grow and flourish,” Kathy says of Lynn. “She’s recruited teachers, renewed programs like Visions [now Basics], developed Peer-to-Peer and the Connection Support Group, and grown Family-to-Family.
“What I admire most about Lynn, though, is her ability to communicate with those in crisis, to be with them, to empathize, and to give them all the time they need, which can translate to hours on the phone or in meetings.”
For Lynn, providing those “helps,” while developing deep relationships with program participants, volunteers and community partners, has been one of the best parts of being at NAMI. Looking ahead, she’ll work to create similar bonds as a life coach, while also helping Tyler manage his growing home-inspection business.
“Our mindset is just completely different,” she says of the two of them. “We don't live in a ‘victim world’ anymore. I'm deciding to live in faith over fear, and throwing myself into the world of my curiosity …
“I've worked with volunteers for all of these years encouraging them to live their best lives, whatever that looks like,” she says, “and now this is my opportunity to do the same.”
Kathy, meanwhile, is looking forward to “longer walks, hikes with my husband, Ron, more time for yoga, plenty of reading, and once we’re past COVID, travel and time with grandkids. And who knows — maybe one of these days, I’ll get back to writing.”
That they’re leaving NAMI at the same time hasn’t been lost on either of them.
“Kathy and I talked about it the other day, just that we've just been on a journey together,” Lynn says. “And she's one of my angels in my life. I don't know where I'd be today if Kathy hadn’t appeared.”
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Occasional news items and tidbits from the office of NAMI Colorado Springs.