Remembering Charles Willis

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DBHDD mourns the loss of Charles Bernard Willis, who passed away June 14, 2015 at the age of 61.

Charles was a nationally renowned mental health advocate who exemplified what it means to live a life of recovery. He served on state councils, helped with research projects and spoke at national conferences, but he also made time to reach out to people in distress and give support. “He is a person who didn’t just speak recovery, he embodied it,” said DBHDD’s Chief of Staff Judy Fitzgerald.

Read tributes to Charles from friends and colleagues

After earning a master’s degree at Fort Valley State University, Charles worked for several state agencies and taught special education in Hancock County. He began experiencing symptoms of mental illness in his twenties and self-medicated with no success. For 27 years, he went through more than 20 treatment programs, committed crimes that sent him in and out of jails and experienced episodes of homelessness. He was also diagnosed HIV-positive.

A mentor helped him get on a path of recovery, and Charles began mentoring others and spreading a message of hope to everyone he met. He trained as one of the first certified peer specialists in Georgia and became a role model, working at the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network (GMHCN), an organization that promotes recovery through advocacy, education, employment, empowerment, peer support and self-help.

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“Charles touched the lives of countless thousands of people across the state and the nation working as a champion of recovery,” said Decatur Peer Support Wellness and Respite Center Director Jayme Lynch. “Through a long battle with illness, Charles never lost the things that made him so memorable and so impactful: his infectious energy, his ceaseless empathy and his ability to light even the darkest night with his smile.”

He was nationally recognized as a speaker and trainer on self-directed care, whole health wellness and recovery. He led regional meetings for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, presented at conferences across the U.S., and testified at the Georgia State Capitol and in Washington about recovery resources.

In Georgia, Charles served for many years on the Behavioral Health Planning and Advisory Council and the board of Mental Health America (MHA) of Georgia. He also worked with Emory University and the Medical College of Georgia on recovery-oriented projects.

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Last year, he received the Clifford W. Beers Award, MHA’s highest honor. The award is given to those whose efforts improve conditions for and attitudes toward people living with mental health challenges.

DBHDD and advocates across Georgia remember Charles for his positive attitude and his enduring efforts to improve mental health care in our state.


Tributes to Charles Bernard Willis

September 13, 1953 – June 14, 2015

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“Charles’ spirit and smile made a lasting impression on all of us. He is a person who didn’t just speak recovery, he embodied it. He will surely be missed, but his hope and positivity remain with us.”
— Judy Fitzgerald, DBHDD chief of staff

“Rest in Power, Charles. Your unwavering voice will be missed, and continues to resonate loudly through all of us who carry on your legacy.”
― Leah H. Arlington, VA

“On Sunday June 14, 2015 our beloved friend and colleague Charles Willis passed away. Charles was able to stand apart as a titan. Charles touched the lives of countless thousands of people across the state and the nation working as a champion of recovery. Through a long battle with illness, Charles never lost the things that made him so memorable and so impactful: his infectious energy; his ceaseless empathy; and his ability to light even the darkest night with his smile. Charles will be missed more than words can convey. Since we all know how much Charles meant to us both individually and as a community, please seek support from your peers and offer support in return. Please keep Charles and his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
― Jayme L., Decatur

“I first met Charles at CPS training in Augusta last June and he instantly became a close friend. I said to him once during training that he made me feel good about myself just by walking in the room. He gave me a great big hug and said he felt the same way about me. Charles always called me “Professor” because I used to work as a teacher in the public schools. He was an amazing compassionate guy and I will really miss him.”
— Mark E.

“Charles told this amazing story of a butterfly that was struggling to break free of a cocoon. A hunter in the woods came upon the cocoon and saw its struggle to free itself of the cocoon. He took a knife and the soon to be butterfly fell to the ground. The story is about the importance of our struggle in growing wings of flight and that we have to do this on our own. He inspired me to write a workbook about the story that has inspired many others. I was always inspired by Charles. When I would call him, I would say “I love you” before hanging up. Charles would say, “I love you more!” I know this is just a saying, but I think Charles loved all of us more. He had so much to share. He lived life to the fullest where it matters, at the heart. I am not sure there is another supporter out there like Charles; his words were so full of hope and strength. I will miss him deeply.”
— Carol C., Lincoln Nebraska

“Words cannot express the sense of loss I feel. Charles was one of my heroes; his place in my recovery will never be replaced. His genuine care and compassion, and his passion will never fade from the mind or the heart. Love to all his friends and family in this great time of loss. What an incredible man.”
―Wade L.

“You have been a guiding light on our shared journey in improving the system in support of wellness. In writing this now, I see the joy in your face extending a hug, offering an impassioned opinion, and celebrating wellness. I am a better professional and better person from our collaboration and partnership. I will not forget your amazing light and will not let it cease to guide me even though I can’t share that hug with you in this time and space. Thank you for your amazing grace.”
— Wendy T.

“What a mark you made on those of us living with mental illness, your legacy will live on forever. May you rest in peace.”
― Julie R.

“Charles had a way of engaging people that was so present and attentive that he gave you the impression that you were the only person in the world at that moment. His smile, eye contact, and genuine manner gave a message of loving kindness to everyone he met. His life has touched many, and will continue to touch many like a pebble tossed on a still pond creating ever widening circles of energy. I miss him now and always will.”
— Gerri S.

“What a wonderfully compassionate and selfless man he was. He encouraged me many times when I felt like throwing in the towel. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. RIP Charles….you’ve made a difference that will never be forgotten.”
― Jewels M., Vidalia Georgia

“I first met Charles at my CPS training in 2006. I kept seeing him pop up everywhere and I knew he really knew recovery. I needed a sponsor because I was new in town. He said yes and remained my sponsor for six years. When he told pieces of his story I realized he had so much experience I knew nothing of, and faced many physical challenges I have never faced, and he was still Charles Willis, the most cheerful man I have ever met, whose laugh I delighted in mimicking. I knew that I wanted to have more of that.  I did my first fifth step with Charles which was utterly painful, but he made it beautifully okay. He seemed to be able to do that wherever he went. So very often when I was looking for a new job situation he would call me out of the blue and tell me about some opportunities. He mainly just wanted to ask how I was doing.”

I believe that when someone of this caliber leaves us, I feel it is because he has done his job immaculately and has nothing else left to do but to guide us in spirit where he can be everywhere. I loved Charles Willis. I will miss his laugh the most of all.”
— Matt Bonaker, Atlanta, Georgia

“Here in Puerto Rico, today I’m sad remembering Steve Kiosk’s (RIP) birthday , and happy that I had the chance to meet him and have his support. Just now I learn about Charles leaving us and I have the same mixed feelings, but the amazement that overcomes us with this kind of news is never really gone. Fortunately, we’ll always have the memory of his incredible legacy and achievements, and the echoes of his laughter that will forever resonate. I’ll miss you Charles.”
— Katy Castro

Profiles in success: Unison Behavioral Health

CP-SupportedEmploymentstoryC.P. is a young man working on his recovery with the assistance of peer support and supported employment services from Unison Behavioral Health in southeast Georgia. He lives with schizophrenia which, in the past, prevented him from working and having a fulfilling life in the community.

Last December, C.P. asked to be referred to Unison’s supported employment services and with the help of his employment specialist and peer support counselor, he now operates his own carwash in Waycross. “I have really good teachers and counselors,” said C.P. “It feels good to get compliments from my customers, and this helps me in my recovery.”

Unison Behavioral Health of Georgia is one of twenty-six community service boards in the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ statewide public safety network. Unison Behavioral Health of Georgia serves individuals with mental health and addiction disorders and developmental disabilities in Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Charlton, Clinch, Coffee, Pierce and Ware counties.

Introducing Dana Scott, the New Director of DBHDD’s Office of Health and Wellness 

20141213_220455-1Dana Scott, MSN, RN, is the director of DBHDD’s new Office of Health and Wellness under the Division of Developmental Disabilities. The office was established as part of the department’s reorganization to be centrally managed and functionally aligned.

Dana has worked for DBHDD since 2008 in various positions, including nurse manager, associate nurse executive and nurse executive. She also started the department’s quality unit for nurses. Dana has been a nurse for nearly 18 years. Her first leadership role was director of child and adolescent services for the University of Maryland Medical Center, where she focused on inpatient care, partial day programming and expanding community-based services. Dana holds a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T and a master’s degree from the University of Alabama.

We interviewed Dana to learn more about the new Office of Health and Wellness.

When did you start in your new role?
I officially started on May 1.

What do you see as the role of the Office of Health and Wellness? 
When you take on a new position, you start with a vision. Since I began in this role, I was encouraged by Dan Howell [director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities] to spend time touring and talking to the people in DBHDD’s regional offices who work directly with our individuals. I jumped on this opportunity because I believe that we are only as successful as the people who do the work, touch the individuals and make the difference. The process has really helped me to understand their expectations of what the Office of Health and Wellness should do to help them do their jobs better.

So the vision has evolved. In about a month, we have developed a shared vision through the incorporation of feedback from the people actually doing the work. This helps us look at what our priorities need to be to help the individuals we serve. Our focus is twofold:

  1. What should we be doing right now, and how does the Office of Health and Wellness ensure that it happens?
  2. What are some of the initiatives and priorities we need to set in the future? For example, establishing frameworks for preventive care.

Tell us about the listening tour.
The listening tour has been focused on DBHDD’s regional field offices. We started about a month and a half ago. Almost immediately after I accepted the position, Ron Wakefield [director of the Office of Field Operations under the Division of Developmental Disabilities] and I began a tour of each of DBHDD’s six regions where we met with staff in different positions who are responsible for supporting individuals who are in the community or transitioning to the community. We used guided questions to help us understand what the staff need to help them do their jobs better, but mainly we just sat there and listened.

The response has been welcoming and positive. People are excited, and there seems to be energy and synergy, like ‘things are changing, and I think we like where they are going.’ As we’ve talked to staff at the regions, it’s so very evident that these people are doing what they love. They want to do it at a level of best practice, and they are excited about the fact that people from the central office are coming, and asking, and supporting them.

Have you completed the tour?
We have visited five of our regions and will visit the last region before the end of June. The goal of the listening tour is to get feedback, but our plan is not to stop there. We want to have a presence in the regions. We have committed to become familiar faces.

We’ve put together seven or eight pages of responses from each region. After we review all of the feedback and begin to put things in place, we need to get back to these folks and say, “not only do we want your input about what to do, but we need your feedback on the most efficient ways to do it—because ultimately, what we put in place has to facilitate you getting it done.” We want this to be an ongoing relationship.

So what does the Office of Health and Wellness look like right now?
We are starting from scratch and working on a proposal that includes where we want to go and the resources we need to accomplish our goals. It is my hope that the office will be interdisciplinary, so that all disciplines within the community are represented and advocated for.

Are you the only employee in the Office of Health and Wellness right now?
At the moment, yes. However, the need for the office has existed for some time, so health and wellness functions have been carried out by people who, though not officially in the Office of Health and Wellness, have stepped up.

Do you have a timeline of when and how the office will be built out?
The timeline will be carefully scrutinized to ensure that we are doing the right things at the right time. We have to balance the urgency of the need while being meticulous enough to make sure that we don’t rush and miscalculate what needs to be implemented at what times for what reasons.

Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you would like to add?
I think that it’s important to give credit where credit is due. This work has been a combination of very supportive leadership and dedicated staff and team members. It is truly the result of people willing to be a team.

What about you?
My energy and the commitment I have to DBHDD’s vision and mission come from the fact that I’m a nurse first—I started out touching people. As a result, I appreciate my responsibility for helping people do their jobs effectively and helping them get the same level of job satisfaction I’ve had throughout my career. I may not have done this job before, but I’m willing to get in the trenches. I’m willing to ask the questions. I’m willing to get out there and find out what is needed to get the work done.

Why are you most excited to be a part of this new initiative?
The individuals we serve are an inspiration. No matter how hard the work is, you want to come to work every day and advocate.

ADA Legacy Tour comes to Georgia

The ADA Legacy Tour is a traveling exhibit designed to raise awareness and build excitement about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Road to Freedom ADA Bus is traveling across the country and has made stops in several Georgia cities, including Atlanta, Augusta and Gainesville.

The tour features a “Museum of disABILITY History” display on the history of self-advocacy; the ADA quilt where thousands of signatures represent those who have participated in the tour; educational displays on the history of disability; and workshops and other programs provided by local hosts.

Last week, the tour made a stop at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Along with the traveling displays, there were information booths, balloon artists, door prizes. Souvenir bags were also given to those who attended  the event.

The ADA is an equal opportunity law for people with disabilities. Signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, it is one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination and ensuring that people with disabilities have the chance to lead fulfilling lives in their communities.

Mandatory Training Required

New system for travel reimbursements

Your participation in training for Concur, the state’s new travel reimbursement system, is required in order for you to continue receiving travel reimbursements after July 1, 2015.

On July 1, DBHDD will begin using Concur for all travel reimbursements. The new system will replace the expenditure spreadsheets and automate the reimbursement process.

If your job includes travel, or you assist with travel or you approve travel reimbursement requests, you must use Concur beginning July 1. 

Participation in one or more of these trainings is mandatory. If you do not complete the training, you will not have access to Concur and will not be reimbursed for travel.

Webinar schedule and registration

Please contact Nathan Ring with any questions about Concur or the webinars.

Thank you for your cooperation.