By Deb Niehoff, Past Executive Director
In the 1970’s, a group of parents from Central Iowa whose adult children were living with schizophrenia met regularly to support one another. At that time, unfortunately, family members, and especially mothers, were blamed for the illness. This group of parents, which included Marge and Milt Allison and Lucy Duitscher along with others, were determined to educate the public about the facts: that mental illness is a brain disorder. As Marge used to explain to anyone who would listen, “The brain is an organ of the body. It can have a disorder, or illness, just like the heart, the liver, or the kidneys can.”
The group organized as a non-profit in 1979, in what would become NAMI Central Iowa. They soon embraced the NAMI mission of educate, support, and advocate. They had a board and began offering educational pro-grams for the public, support groups for parents, and started advocating with local and state legislators for the needs of their loved ones.
During the 1990’s the group heard that funding was available for non-profits, and they decided to hire their first Executive Director, Frederica Zuerner. Frederica was part-time and worked from her home.
The story becomes personal for me in 1999, as I turned to NAMI Central Iowa when a family member became ill with bipolar disorder. I received education and support, and soon became involved by training to be a Family-to-Family teacher. NAMI Central Iowa was among the first affiliates in Iowa to offer the Family-to-Family class, and I estimate that over 500 family members have taken the class here in the last 20 years.
Fran Berger became the next Executive Director. She also worked part-time and started out in her home, but soon moved to a small office in the Annex on Sheldon Avenue. During the early 2000’s, NAMI became more involved with other groups who also were working for the welfare of individuals living with mental illness, including the Richmond Center, Mary Greeley Medical Center, Ames City police, and others. This kind of cooperation and communication is still vital today.
Also during this time, individuals living with mental illness began advocating for themselves. Some of these peers were trained to lead the NAMI Connection Peer Support Group, and weekly meetings began to be held. These continue to provide hope and support on a weekly basis.
In 2007, I took over from Fran as part-time Executive Director. Very early on, a group of peers began talking about starting a Mental Health Wellness Center here in Ames. Wendie Cooper and I attended a NAMI Nation-al Convention in San Francisco where we learned about other NAMI groups that were offering art classes and writing classes. By 2010 we had volunteers leading these groups here, and NAMI Central Iowa began to seriously consider getting a center started here in Ames. We visited a center in Dubuque which was run by peers, and decided that would be our model. We had a trial run in the fall of 2011 in a church Fellowship Hall, and by January of 2012 we had signed a lease with the Historical Society for space in their building. The rest, as they say, is history. For the last eight years the Wellness Center has been open every weekday afternoon, offering art, writing, support groups, and much more, under the direction of peer coordinators.
I mentioned the names of our founders and early executive directors, but I want to emphasize that this organization would not be here doing what it does without the support and work of board members, family members, peers, and our many funders, both past and present. A lot of hard work and many prayers have been offered for this organization, and it’s such a joy to celebrate the last 40 years!