you are never alone !
JC Runyon Foundation
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. Always. I remember having a “classroom” in my childhood bedroom in Mayfield, KY, filled with discarded teacher editions of textbooks and a chalkboard.
by Niki R. Shaheen | Founder/President of J.C Runyon Foundation
My class roster consisted of my brothers and childhood neighbors. I even had a red check next to my brother, Chris, who misbehaved badly.
But also growing up, I had a father who would come into my classroom to talk about “good and bad feels.” He was a psychologist, so my understanding that people get sad and need to see a different kind of doctor was as much a part of me as going to school every day.
As a teenager, I worked in my father’s office as the receptionist throughout high school. I was in charge of typing his dictation notes from all of his sessions. He, at the time, was one of the only mental health providers in town. While my peers described the local psych ward as the “loony bin”, I always knew better. I knew all the secrets of all my friends, and it never once dawned on me as unusual to know this, much less to tell anyone (or them) what I knew. It was no different to me than being the daughter of the local pediatrician. Little Johnny was treated for the chicken pox or depression over his parents’ divorce. It was all the same to me.
It should come as no surprise that I became a teacher and married a man who worked in behavioral health. The two parts of my life uniting into one. Eventually, my husband started his own behavioral health care company and owns and operates several freestanding psychiatric hospitals around the United States. If only my dad had lived to see it. We lost him to cancer in 2007.
After teaching for many years, I found that I needed to be home with my boys, so I left the profession. Now, with a little time on my hands, I finally had time to look into something that I had been thinking about for a bit. Being on the provider side of mental health, I knew that the cost of treatment, not only for inpatient treatment, but for outpatient care, medication, ED visits, etc., was high. Really, really high. I thought about the kids that my father treated so many years ago, I thought about my own students who had struggled over the years and I wondered how they were able to move forward after all that. Had they gone to college? So I started to look into statistics of kids with mental health disorders who go to college. There wasn’t much out there about that.
But I quickly learned a reason why. I found articles from parents who’d used credit cards, took out second mortgages, spent college savings to pay for their children’s treatment. I would do it too. I would do whatever it took to help my child and think about the consequences later. I talked a former student who is now an adult and learned that he wasn’t able to go to college because there just was no money left. His high school transcripts and overall GPA disqualified him from traditional scholarships or even the state funded HOPE scholarship. His upper middle-class parents made too much to qualify for Pell Grants or other such funding. He was not alone. There were many families just like this.
That is when it hit me. I wanted to combine my passion for education with my knowledge of mental health to create something that would make it possible for these kids to go to college. I began researching scholarships and realized that there are scholarships for surviving cancer, kids of parents lost to cancer, scholarships based on your gender, race, socio-economic status, scholarships for athletic ability, academic ability and gaming ability. But there was nothing, I mean nothing for students who had overcome substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, eating disorders or suicidal ideation/attempts.
I was shocked. Mental health disorders affect one in four students. Severe disorders, requiring inpatient hospitalization, affect 2% of that number. Essentially, on average 1 in 25 adolescents in America will require intensive treatment for a mental health disorder each year. That is one student out of every classroom in America, on average. It gets worse, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in the US. That is just under accidental death, car accidents, drowning and drug overdoses. Why, I thought, are we not shouting this from the rooftops? We celebrate cancer survivors (as well as we should) but why do we hide from suicide survival? Overcoming depression? Managing Bipolar Disorder?
So, I began to change that. In the spirit of my father, who really wanted to give his patients to the tools to help themselves, I wanted to do the same. I want to celebrate our kids who have learned to manage their Bipolar Disorder or Major Anxiety Disorder. I want to talk about how that part of their lives is important and has changed them in big and small ways, but it isn’t the only part of their lives. It’s just a chapter. It’s hard to be a teenager, but for those who have a behavioral health disorder, it’s even harder. Our society still thinks of mental health disorder as a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” scenario. But it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s our sons and daughters, our neighbors. It’s the 1% and the poverty stricken. I promise that every single person has someone close to them affected by this. But we don’t celebrate them. We talk in whispers about it.
The JC Runyon Foundation was the first scholarship program in the US of its kind. I’m glad to say that there are others now, but we remain the largest. We aren’t just a scholarship program. We don’t just write a check and move on. We create relationships. I keep in contact with each one of our scholarship recipients throughout their college time and beyond. We have a Gala every year here in Memphis where we celebrate them. I can’t tell you how many attendees come to me later thinking that they were there to inspire our students, but have come away inspired themselves. Parents of our students tell us how much it means to be able to be congratulated for making it through a dark time. It is really something to see.
We are still pretty new and will have our first 4 year scholarship recipient graduate this Spring (2019). I hear from kids and adults all over the world daily and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to listen and encourage. But it’s just not enough. This is a need that has only begun to be met. We can’t possibly meet all the needs – last year we received over $2.5 million in grant requests. Honestly, the hardest part of my job is telling kids no. It kills me. We’ve awarded $340,000 worth of scholarships so far, but I still think about the kids who we had to turn away, and I talk to a few of them from time-to-time.
I realize how fortunate I am that I can do this job without ever taking a salary. And thanks to my husband’s commitment to the mission, we are able to use his office space and resources. I’m so grateful to be able to use those donor funds for tuition and not salaries and overhead expenses! But I am mostly grateful that I can use my own skills to shine a light on our kids. Like Ellie, University of Rhode Island Class of 2022 said, “My diagnosis does not define me, I am Ellie, athlete, student, friend, sister, daughter and leader”. The struggles they have been though are not the whole book, only a chapter, it’s time to #LiveYourNextChapter.
JC Runyon Foundation
Faith & Inspiration
you are never alone !