ALEXANDRIA, VA – There is a little nonprofit with a big impact and can-do spirit, and yet, it is one of the best kept secrets in our city.
Founded in 1984 by dedicated volunteers such as Lois Van Valkenburg and Peter Straub as well as the director of the Community Services Board Judith Krasnow, Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center (“Friends”) provides financial help and hope to Alexandrians participating in City services for mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities.
Friends provides a financial safety net for Alexandrians receiving mental health services from the City’s Community Services Board (CSB) programs, which are part of the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS). Friends also collaborates with partners working to advance mental health throughout the city – those who strengthen the safety net and improve mental health awareness and advocacy.
To understand Alexandria’s current needs, in 2021, the CSB served 4,283 Alexandrians through mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services. That year, 30.1% were ages 20 and younger.
Anyone and any family, regardless of education, means, or age, can fall on hard times and find themselves or a loved one facing a mental health challenge and unmet needs. For 40 years, Friends has been filling in the gaps.
It takes courage to face a mental health challenge. The CSB reaches out to Friends for financial assistance if a client is facing a challenge, which can hurt a person’s recovery, including: a need to move from a shelter to an apartment, a heated and cooled home, a clean mattress, a ride to the doctor, medicine, dental work, a training course, summer camp for a child, a college visit for first-generation youth, and kids’ school clothing. Friends funds these needs within a few days. In the case of an emergency, Friends sends a check within 24 hours. Friends typically gives $45,000-$75,000 per year.
“If you cannot get the meds or eyeglasses or dental care you need, it’s hard to focus on your recovery,” explained Rebecca Grueneberger, a recent co-chair of the Board of Friends. “The founders realized that those with mental health challenges have basic life needs, too, which the city cannot pay for. So, the founders created Friends. For every dollar given to Friends, 98% goes directly to the clients’ needs. Friends has an all-volunteer board, no paid staff, and no rent. We only pay for materials such as supplies, stamps, and envelopes. We are truly lean!”
Kate Garvey, the Director of DCHS, said, “The Friends of Alexandria Mental Health Center plays a critical role in supporting the efforts of our staff and in meeting the unique needs of residents with behavioral health challenges. The commitment and compassion demonstrated by this stalwart group of volunteers serve as an amazing example for us all. We are eternally grateful for their work and long-term efforts to create a caring community for those we serve.”
The clients are helped directly. One wrote, “Thank you for buying my bed. Not only do I get an occasional good night’s sleep, but with my knee, it makes it easier to go to bed and to get up. Thanks again.”
A staff member at the West End Wellness Center wrote, “Today, I took five members to the movies. They were so grateful to have a social outing. One member remarked that she hadn’t been to a movie in 20-plus years. With your support, we are able to provide support and socialization for individuals who don’t always feel included in what others may consider ‘normal’ life.”
Because of Friends’ community education and outreach, there are those who felt less afraid to step out of the shadows of stigma and into the light of treatment, and there are those who reached out for help instead of ending their lives.
Bill Rooney, DCHS’ Adult Mental Health Team Supervisor, remarked, “Friends has an important role in helping support some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Friends’ willingness to be flexible and timely in response makes all the difference in helping clients.”
DCHS’ Chief of Child & Family Behavioral Health Services, Tricia Bassing, emphasized, “The kindness and compassion of the members of Friends never cease to amaze me. Friends’ steady presence and commitment to people with behavioral health challenges are admirable and a model for all. Friends has impacted countless lives for the better in big and small invaluable ways. I know our systems of care are better for having Friends.”
Friends exemplifies how Alexandria is a city of kindness and compassion.
To make a difference with Friends, Anna Dvorchik and Mary Ray, the current co-chairs of the Board, encourage residents to volunteer with the organization or please send a check of any amount to:
Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center
2525 Mount Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, Virginia 22301
Donors may also give online through Spring2ACTion on April 27, 2022.
Allison Silberberg, a former Mayor of Alexandria, serves on the Board of Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center.