For youth mental health activist Diana Chao, the keynote speaker at CHD’s 50th Anniversary Celebration dinner on October 20, our agency’s mission to help those in need truly resonates with her goal to increase access to mental health treatment.
Chao is the founder/executive director of Letters to Strangers, a global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit. “Much of my own journey and the journeys of the youths we serve at Letters to Strangers took difficult turns because of a lack of community support,” she said prior to the celebration. “The work that CHD does to bridge that gap in families’ needs is critical and deeply resonating. I am thrilled to be part of celebrating the countless individuals who have been fighting this long but fulfilling fight.”
CHD’s celebration at the MassMutual Center was a festive gathering of those close to our agency—all of whom have played a part in our organization’s success. Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno began the night’s program with a proclamation of October 20, 2022 being officially CHD Day in the city of Springfield, which drew loud applause. State Sen. Eric Lesser and State Rep. Michael Finn also issued proclamations.
Speaker Katherine Oritz, an individual who was served in our foster care program, declared that CHD was literally her family. “As a young adult entering foster care, I was truly helped by CHD to make a transition in a time in which my life could have easily made a change for the worse,” she said.
Amy Royal, chair of the CHD Board of Directors, remarked that so many in the community have been touched by the multitude of programs CHD offers throughout western Massachusetts and Connecticut. “In 2013, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” she said. In the six months from her diagnosis to her passing, she became connected to CHD through one of its programs, the Cancer House of Hope, which “gave my mom and her family tremendous hope, compassion, love, support, and strength. The staff there and all of the staff I’ve met at CHD in its various programs over the last 20 years pour their hearts and souls into the work they do every day.”
CHD President and CEO Jim Goodwin recalled visiting his elderly aunt when the 1969 moon landing was televised, and it occurred to him that she had been alive during the entire history of flight, dating back to when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903. He mused that it was doubtful the Wright brothers envisioned astronauts one day flying to the moon. Similarly, he asserted, none of CHD’s founders could have ever known that what they had set into motion back in 1972 would become a large agency with a full spectrum of services with nearly 2,000 employees serving 25,000 people a year.
“CHD sure looks different now, but its values and mission remain the same,” he said.
Goodwin explained how three young activists, CHD founders Art Bertrand, Bill Seretta, and Kathy Townsend gathered at a kitchen table to figure out an innovative way to bring life-saving services into homes, schools, workplaces, and community centers. “A group of strong people with great ideas, big hearts, and a lot of energy came together,” he said. “They saw an opportunity to change the way children’s services were delivered. They believed that kids should be cared for in their own communities and be as close to their families as possible, rather than be warehoused in institutions. They acted on those beliefs.”
He mused on his 42 years at CHD and its future. “When I think about CHD and the time I’ve spent here, I’ve witnessed the entire evolution of community based care,” he said. “I’ve always been proud of what we do, how we treat the staff and the people we serve. It has been an amazing experience. All of you here have played a role in the success of CHD. In the future, we certainly won’t let go of all those attributes that made us successful: direct involvement, perseverance, creativity.”
Bob Fazzi, CHD’s first executive director, talked about the early days of CHD. “Until our agency’s founding, community mental health services were hard to come by and people were getting lost in the system. Bill Seretta said, ‘There has got to be a better way,’” said Fazzi. The founders put in place community-based care that is the heart and soul of CHD’s mission. Fazzi credited CHD’s Community Support Program (CSP), at first run by Goodwin, with having a major impact on the agency. CSP is a mobile, short-term program delivering intensive case management services, enabling individuals we serve to live independently in the community and avoid unnecessary hospitalizations. “It helped shape the future of CHD,” he said. “Jim has this tenacious way of getting people excited about something that is important, and this helped shape the future of the organization.”
Diana Chao told the audience her personal story of growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American growing up in Los Angeles below the poverty line with parents who didn’t speak English. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 13, attempted suicide at 14, and is a suicide loss survivor.
When Chao was a high school sophomore, she founded Letters to Strangers, a club that wrote heartfelt anonymous letters distributed throughout the community. Her hope was that these letters would help someone who was secretly struggling as she was. That organization is now a global youth-for-youth nonprofit impacting more than 35,000 people on six continents every year.
Chao pointed out that mental health disorders are prevalent among children and youth. “Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24,” she said.
She started Letters to Strangers because she knew she couldn’t be the only teenager that needed healing. “At first I just wanted to persuade my friends to join my newly formed club—to persuade them to spend more time with me,” she said. “I bribed them with free pizza to come to the lunch meetings.” But she found that something about Letters to Strangers resonated with people by making mental health personal, and that over time, she learned from real-life examples how one letter, one human connection, can save a life. “I found reassurance that I—that all of us—are not alone in this universe,” she said.