Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wyoming's UPLIFT displays the better side of human nature

It was a week marked by savagery and bravery.

A disturbed young man shoots 18 people in front of a Tucson grocery store. Six of them die, the rest wounded, one -- Rep. Giffords -- critically.

Amidst the slaughter, people rushed to save the wounded and subdue the attacker. You're heard the stories, if not from Cable news than from Pres. Obama's eloquent speech at Wednesday's memorial.

What causes some people to run away from chaos and others to run toward it? I've been asking myself that question all week. Daniel Hernandez ran toward the gunfire and tended to his boss's wounds. He didn't leave her side until the ambulance got her to the hospital. When he spoke Wednesday, we saw a self-confident and self-effacing 20-year-old college student. He's devoted himself to a life of public service. We saw that commitment to both the "public" and "service" parts of the equation this week.

When challenged, we will sacrifice our own lives to help our fellow humans. This is the good side of our nature, the empathetic and charitable side. Researchers announced recently that there is a part of us -- the "altruism gene" -- that promotes charitable instincts. We also know that there are parts of us that respond to the venal and violent.

In the end, which wins out? Physiology is only part of it. Family upbringing makes a difference, as do other role models. Intelligence and education do to too, although we know that many sins have been committed by "the best and brightest." Religion can play a part. Again, many slaughters have been committed by the righteous.

I was thinking of this yesterday during the quarterly board meeting of UPLIFT in Cheyenne. We are a volunteer board of 14 members. We just welcomed a new one, LaWahna Stickney, from Thayne. We now are a truly statewide board, with members from Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper and Thayne. Most of us became involved in children's mental health and behavioral issues because our own children were struggling. Teachers complained that our kids were unruly and defiant. Other parents complained when our children got aggressive on the playground. We were at wit's end at home because we could not understand why our little darlings were such monsters. Weren't we kind and generous and educated human beings?

We were stymied when we attempted to find help in the community. We were either told outright -- or it was implied -- that we were bad parents with bad kids. We knew that wasn't true. By the time our son, Kevin, was five, we'd seen practically every specialist along Colorado's Front Range. We finally found a psychiatrist in Fort Collins, Dr. James Kagan, who diagnosed Kevin with ADHD and helped put us on the right road. That involved medication in the form of Ritalin. Therapy, too. But we still had this weird sense that we were all alone in this, that it was our struggle to bear and understand.

Finding UPLIFT when we moved to Cheyenne gave us some handy tools, especially when it came to dealing with schools. We also found similar struggles among its staff and board. We discovered helpful ways to deal with schools. It was cathartic to share our stories and hear those of others.

Here's UPLIFT's mission statement:
Encouraging success and stability for children and youth with or at risk of emotional, behavioral, learning, developmental, or physical disorders at home, school, and in the community.
UPLIFT just marked its 20th anniversary of service to Wyoming. At yesterday's board meeting, we heard details of our recent financial setbacks. UPLIFT is an organization that gets 97 percent of its funding from governmental (mostly federal) sources. Sometimes you get turned down for grants, and sometimes funding streams dry up. Strings are attached to most government funding. So, while your organization has a significant budget, you may not have enough money to pay for the basics, such as salaries, electricity and a office space. It's a truism in the world of non-profits -- keeping the lights on is the biggest challenge.

UPLIFT had to cut the administration budget. That includes salaries and benefits, including health insurance. Two employees left because that health insurance was crucial to them -- many employees have kids with special needs. One employee moved out of state. The ones that remained not only stayed and worked with their clients around this very rural state, but they even stopped claiming travel reimbursements. Some employees even made cash contributions. That's something, isn't it? Salaries and benefits get cut, yet you still find the means to put some cash in the kitty.

They know that this is a short-term problem. They also know that the cuts bring pain to their boss, Peggy Nikkel. They are certain of the good work they do and don't want it to stop or interrupted. Most of their time is spent working with families. They accompany parents to school meetings, helping them make sense of the requirements with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individualized Education Programs. At these meetings, the principal and school psychologist and half the teachers are arrayed against you. We have had several of UPLIFT's family support specialists (Judy Bredthauer, for one) at these meetings and it made a huge difference. They are cool and calm and knowledgeable. They can get tough when presented with intransigence. But the main thing is that schools now know that UPLIFT can be trusted. Oftentimes, they welcome the participation of UPLIFT staffers.

As I've recounted often on these pages, Wyoming is a huge, rural state with many challenges when it comes to children's mental health.

UPLIFT, an affiliate of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, fills a huge gap. Its staffers don't provide clinical services, but they are the great connectors between families and those services. They can translate government regulations. For cash-strapped families, they find funding. They make sense of the great big world of mental health.

They are on a mission. Maybe, as were the Blues Brothers, they are on a mission from God. Whatever their motivations, they come from the better side of human nature.

By the way, if you want to stimulate your own better natures, you can donate to UPLIFT by going here.

Looking for help, call toll free 888-875-4383.

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