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ANN CONWAY

Real Stories Are Behind the Scenes : Charity events are not all a who's-who forum to see and be seen. Most volunteers are involved for support or to give something back.

March 10, 1994|ANN CONWAY

In the world of charity events, benefit organizers are often people who are suffering in silence, holding their heads high as they wage their wars against the physical or mental calamities that have befallen them or their families.

With their bright smiles and energetic ways, you'd never guess they were battling cancer, for example, or striving desperately to remain tethered to reality while a loved one loses his way.

"Nine times out of 10 our volunteers are cancer patients who've survived and want to give back, or they've lost someone to cancer," says Margaret Edwards, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, Orange County region.

"One 71-year-old volunteer on our marketing committee had cancer, his wife had cancer, and now both are volunteering for us. They want to give back the support we gave them.

"Another volunteer hopes to raise $200,000 at our upcoming Taste for Life benefit. Her passion is the memory of her husband, who died of cancer.

"We also have a young man who wants to work on our Great American Smokeout because his father died of cancer two years ago."

Society events are not all about the buzz, gala gowns and bejeweled necks. Most of the people are on the scene for a personal reason. They need support, or they want to give something back.

Nancy Weir of Tustin is one of those. At the annual theater benefit for the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Orange County on Sunday, she greeted guests with a smile and a bright "hello." She cruised the raffle table, oohing and ahhing over the items. She dined with gusto and happily applauded the performance of "The Fantasticks" at Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call Dinner Theatre in Tustin.

And, without self pity, she told the tale of her beloved 39-year-old schizophrenic son who is in denial about his illness. "He's on the streets right now in Northern California. There's no way to control his illness because he won't take his medication--won't admit he is mentally ill," she said.

His illness was diagnosed after he graduated from college. "He got a degree in physics from USC," Weir said.

She seldom sees him--once a year "when he really needs something" or "once every other year" when he doesn't.

And, despite her ongoing pain and frustration, she is surviving. "I keep busy. I can't help my son because he refuses help, but my relationship with the Alliance for the Mentally Ill has helped me meet people who understand what I am going through," she said. "So often people don't understand about mental illness. Here, you've got friends."

Like Barbara Chilow of Newport Beach. "I have a 35-year-old son who is mentally ill," said Chilow, who is president of the alliance board. "He has bipolar disorder, a disease that used to be called manic-depressive illness. It's one of the more treatable mental illnesses, but it's also very serious--there are major mood swings."

Her son is doing OK, because he is taking his prescribed medication. "But we take it one day at a time," she said.

The challenge for families with a mentally ill loved one is that the problem is "ongoing" Chilow said. "Mental illness is not a minor family crisis. It's something that goes on for your entire life.

"The person who is mentally ill in your family is the person who is crisis-prone. They are constantly causing crisis or in crisis. That causes a lot of family disruption. The main thing we teach the members of our alliance is to take care of themselves and be a strong family."

Both women are candid about their sons' illnesses because they want people to understand there is no shamed involved.

"The two major persistent mental illnesses are schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," Chilow said. "They are biochemically or organically based. They are not something created by the family, a former misconception."

One of the alliance's goals is to reduce the prejudice that surrounds mental illness. "Our movement is not dissimilar from the one where people learn to say, 'I am an alcoholic,' " Chilow said. "We want to help overcome the denial and stigma of mental illness."

The alliance serves its 550 members by holding free support group meetings (they have 13 support groups); offering housing, transportation and clothing assistance, and educating through seminars and literature distribution.

"We plan to continue to build our network of community support because we need to get the word out that we're here," said alliance director Jeffrey Hovsepian. "When people need us, we want them to be able to get to us."

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