Long before internet dating sites, Michele Brown carved out a career as a different kind of matchmaker.
She finds friends for people coping with mental illness.
Over the past 31 years, she has found friends for hundreds of such people.
A few success stories:
• A woman who had been in the Buffalo Psychiatric Center for years before Brown helped find her a friend, her first in 20 years.
• A man in his early 20s who approached Brown at an event and asked, “Could you just find a person to go to the movies with me?”
• Two professionals, both with bipolar disorder, who were matched with volunteer friends and then met each other at a party. They later married and started a family.
• And Kayliee Glavina, now 21, who was really depressed and almost suicidal as a high school senior, before matching up with Karen Bartkowiak, director of youth services at Compeer.
They see each other once a week, for coffee and doughnuts, long walks and lots of advice. Her friend also helped Glavina with her baby shower before the birth of her adorable redheaded daughter, Minerva, eight months ago. And they text and talk frequently, sharing such random events as Glavina spotting a pair of high heels made out of cork.
In short, they’re friends.
“Karen is a really big role model in my life,” said Glavina, who plans to graduate from the University at Buffalo late next year. “It’s somebody to listen and care, having somebody you know you can rely on and be open with them. It’s nice to know that people care.”
Bartkowiak smiled at how far her friend has come.
“This is a journey,” she said. “There were times when I was concerned about Kayliee, but she’s in a good place now.”
Compeer of Greater Buffalo, which Brown has headed for more than 31 years, currently has 323 such pairings.
“Compeer is the only organization that provides people with mental illness a friend to decrease their loneliness and isolation,” Brown said. “Like we need the air we breathe and food and shelter, we need human contact. Can you imagine filling out an application and saying, ‘Please find me a friend?’ ”
But after heading the local chapter of Compeer since 1985, Brown is ready to retire at the end of this year, when she will be 66.
She believes it’s time to step aside for someone new. Someone better equipped to battle the yearly funding challenges faced by organizations like Compeer. Someone who can maintain the energy to fight for mental health dollars and acceptance.
“I think somebody else can do a better job at this point,” she said. “Mental health funding has changed so much, and I think you need a different skill set from when I came. I’m tired of begging people for money. I feel so passionate about what we’ve done. I know we’ve saved lives. Maybe somebody new will have different skills that will sustain and grow the organization.”
Brown seems equally proud about her legacy and frustrated about the challenges ahead.
She sounds buoyed by the acceptance, legislative action and popular support for many causes, including people with AIDS and the LGBT community, especially transgenders.
“But in mental illness, we still struggle to find champions, to find ambassadors,” she said. “The Patty Dukes of the world are few and far between. It’s still stigmatizing.”
Brown couldn’t help comparing the battles for public acceptance being waged by transgenders and people with mental illness.
“I don’t want to say whose pain is worse, but more people are affected by mental illness than people who are transgender,” she said. “When you look at the numbers, our children and our veterans are committing suicide.”
Three years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs cited a report claiming that 22 veterans kill themselves every day, many of them veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Brown knows when she will retire, she’s not exactly coasting to the finish line.
Compeer, founded in Rochester in 1973, now has about 50 chapters in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including Compeer of Greater Buffalo. In a few weeks, the Buffalo program will merge with Compeer Inc., and Brown will be president of the larger network.
She laughed recalling how she told her board she will be the Moses figure for Compeer.
“I’ll bring them to the Promised Land, making sure the merger goes through, but someone else will have to build it up, to help sustain the program.”
While thrilled about all the success stories from her agency, Brown also lamented that there aren’t enough volunteers. The local Compeer chapter has 392 people on its waiting list.
“Our kids get pushed to the back of the list for regular mentoring programs,” she said. “They’re not even considered. Potential volunteers are scared of someone with mental health problems.
“We still have a long way to go, to gain acceptance and tolerance and understanding.”