Memories of Ken Whiddon

kenwhiddon

William Kenneth Whiddon
1951 – 2015

Wendy Tiegreen:

When Georgia was initially developing the concepts of recovery and peer support in the early 2000s, there were still several leaders within and outside of the system who did not fully grasp that individuals who might be living with a significant mental health diagnosis could also manage that illness and be living full and extraordinary lives.  Ken Whiddon walked alongside us blowing up those old notions, as a man with lived experience, as an advocate, as a certified peer specialist, as a department administrator, as a provider, and as a friend. His very extraordinary life not only touched those of us who knew him, but radically moved the cultural needle of the system towards embracing recovery and full lives.

Patrick Waters:

As many of you know, Ken Whiddon founded AmericanWork. It is his legacy. He was always focused on serving consumers in the best possible way. He created a culture that emphasized recovery. His personal and professional life was a testament to that.

Cythnia Wainscott:

I have so many fond memories of Ken. I can still see him leading the early Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network meetings and taking the network’s #1 priority (“JOBS!”) around the state, passionately declaring that there was a moral imperative for the state to respond. Ken and Larry Fricks were a dynamite team during those years.  Way back “when,” Ken and Jean Toole’s leadership of Mental Health America workshops spread the gospel of recovery before we used that word. When I served on the Governor’s Mental Health Advisory Council with Ken and Pierluigi Mancini, their unimpeachable knowledge about what was happening “on the ground” often shone the clear bright light of reality on our deliberations. Haven’t we all seen that piercing look on Ken’s face when he decided something was worth fighting for? Ken was a kick-butt advocate for the passage of House Bill 100, and then for implementation that was true to the spirit of the bill. He and Stan Jones were a great sales team! I think I remember that Ken was even (briefly) a regional director before he decided that he could get more done as a statewide provider. And did he ever! Thousands of people have benefited from his work. Ken was a great spirit and he will be missed by many.

Mary Shuman:

Ken effected tremendous change in Georgia’s public behavioral health system by believing that ANYONE can recover, including those who were thought hopeless and too difficult to serve in the community. Ken provided recovery-oriented, community-based services before we knew what to call it. He was a tremendous leader and leaves a very rich legacy.

Ken was a pioneer, gentle giant, quiet leader, and so much more. He lived his convictions in a way that improved the lives of thousands and effected tremendous change in Georgia’s behavioral health and developmental disability service system. His legacy is enormous and I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to work with him.

 Larry Fricks:

What an amazing leader who was a pioneer supporting employment of peers in Georgia.

 Charles Fetner:

If there was ever a person who could take an idea that would improve the lives of people with a serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI) and bring it to fruition, it was Ken. I first met Ken in 2001 while working at Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah. Ralph McCuinn, the regional director for the Southeast Region at that time, and I were discussing the need to develop community residential sites in order to relocate several patients who had been in the hospital for an extended period of time and who the clinicians said could be served in the community. Ralph brought Ken to our next meeting to continue our discussions. Ken sat quietly and when the meeting ended, he said “I’ll be touch.” A few days later he asked me to come look at some apartments located between Savannah and Richmond Hill. I was expecting to see an old apartment building located near an industrial complex or a vacated military barracks. Instead, Ken had found and already signed leases in a new upscale apartment complex. Not only did he work fast, but he also had high standards and wanted people with SPMI to have an opportunity to demonstrate to themselves and others that they could be responsible citizens and respected. Within just a few weeks, 19 people who had been in the hospital for years were living in their own apartment or were sharing one. Ken’s program was not just to relocate these individuals, but to integrate them into community life. Ken will be missed.

 Audrey Sumner:

About 13 years ago, Ken Whiddon and American Work entered into a project with the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases to transition individuals who were living on a long-term unit at Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah. At the time, most community providers did not consider individuals who were still symptomatic to be ready for community living. Some of the individuals had been living in an institution for most of their adult lives. Others had utilized every community service present at that point in our service history and no residential provider was willing to serve them. Ken proposed providing intensive residential services in an apartment setting. Many people believed that it was ludicrous to believe that these individuals could successfully live in their own apartments but Ken was confident that providing people a stable place to live in a non-group setting would actually contribute to their success. Ken broke the mold for how to provide intensive residential services in the community and changed my thinking about what was possible for individuals living with severe mental illnesses.

Mary Holliday:

Working with Ken was great. While all of the regional coordinators had compassion for the people served, Ken had understanding.

Megan Paul:

I was so saddened to hear about Ken’s passing. I feel so fortunate to have known him and to have worked for him. He was a true advocate for those living with a mental illness. I am very proud to be associated with the company he created, and its dedication to providing high-quality care. His passion for supported employment was evident, and it was a honor for me to serve individuals in that role.

I know that he made a huge impact on the entire state, and he will be greatly missed.

I still feel very connected to AmericanWork. It really is a fantastic company, staffed with wonderful people, whom he hand selected and trusted with his legacy. I cannot say enough positive things about my time there, and am extremely grateful for the experience.

Public invited to comment and suggest improvements to Medicaid waiver programs

In collaboration with the Georgia Department of Community Health, DBHDD’s Division of Developmental Disabilities will host six public forums next month to collect comments and suggestions for the Medicaid waiver programs.

The opportunity to gather feedback is part of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ application process to continue operating the Comprehensive Supports Waiver Program (COMP) for another five years. The public is also invited to comment on the New Options Waiver (NOW). Both programs offer home- and community-based services for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

“We would like to reach out to individuals and families who use the services and to advocates and other interested parties to determine what programs are doing well and what could be improved,” said Catherine Ivy, director of community services for the division. She will be presenting the latest information on the NOW and COMP waivers at each of the forums.

Anyone who receives, provides or manages the NOW and COMP waivers is encouraged to attend one of the six statewide forums. Attendees will also participate in a focused discussion with other advocates and can record suggestions for improvements to services.

For locations and to RSVP, please visit http://dbhdd.georgia.gov/nowcomp-community-forums.

Mental Health advocate Ken Whiddon passes away

Georgia remembers tireless peer advocate and provider

kenwhiddonA pioneer of peer support counseling, an advocate of supported employment and a provider of recovery-focused services, William Kenneth “Ken” Whiddon, who lived with serious and persistent mental illness, passed away last week. He was 63.

Whiddon once said, “When you meet someone, they always ask, ‘What’s your name,’ and then, ‘What do you do?’ Work is such an important part of who you are.”

Friends and colleagues share memories of Ken

He saw work as a path to recovery. His career as an advocate and a leader who educated and encouraged support for those in recovery started with an internship at a community mental health center. Whiddon founded a statewide peer-run recovery network, managed state services as a regional director and started his own company, AmericanWork, to provide services to help people with mental illnesses or addictive disorders live fulfilling lives in their community.

His work, which effected tremendous change in the state, did not go unnoticed. He was appointed to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases in 2006. In 2014 he was honored by the National Council on Behavioral Health with the Award of Excellence for Employment.

“As a man with lived experience, as an advocate, as a certified peer specialist, as a department administrator, as a provider, and as a friend, Ken’s very extraordinary life not only touched those of us who knew him, but radically moved the cultural needle of the system towards embracing recovery and full lives,” said Wendy Tiegreen, director of DBHDD’s Office of Medicaid and Health System Innovations.

After cycling in and out of state hospitals for 10 years, Whiddon returned to school and secured an internship at a community mental health center, which eventually led to a job at a day service center in Macon.

In 1991, Whiddon, along with other mental health consumers, won a federal grant and founded the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network (GMHCN) with the goals of promoting employment to foster independence, and providing training opportunities for consumers, including the Certified Peer Specialist Project. He was GMHCN’s first president and two decades later, the organization hosts one of the largest statewide annual consumer conventions in the nation.

Whiddon served 10 years in direct service and management positions in community mental health centers, a community service board, and as executive director of Georgia’s former Division of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse in region 2.

“Ken was briefly a regional director before he decided that he could get more done as a statewide provider,” said Cythnia Wainscott, who serves on the board of Mental Health America. “And did he ever! Thousands of people have benefited from his work.”

In 1999, Whiddon started his own company to help behavioral health agencies provide supported employment services.  He named it AmericanWork, Inc., affirming “I can work.” AmericanWork collaborates with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency and DBHDD to provide recovery-centered core services, specialty services and residential services. Through his company, Whiddon helped hundreds of people with mental illnesses reintegrate into the community after long-term hospital stays.

“[Ken] was a true advocate for those living with a mental illness, the company he created, and its dedication to providing high-quality care,” said former colleague at AmericanWork, Megan Paul. “His passion for supported employment was evident.”

At a meeting in 2001 to discuss the development of community residential sites to relocate several clients who had been living at Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah, Whiddon said very little, but sprang into action. “Ken found and signed leases in a new upscale apartment complex [within a few days]. Not only did he work fast, but he also had high standards and wanted people with mental illness to have an opportunity to demonstrate to themselves and others that they could be responsible citizens and respected,” said DBHDD regional coordinator Charles Fetner. “Within just a few weeks, 19 people who had been in the hospital for years were living in their own apartment or were sharing one. Ken’s program was not just to relocate these individuals, but to integrate them into community life.”

Bridgeway Village opens

View Point Health held an open house last month for Bridgeway Village, a 30-unit housing community in Lawrenceville for people in recovery from mental illness and addictive disease.

All residents receive on-site supportive services funded by DBHDD, including psychological evaluations, case management, and individual and group therapy.

“[Bridgeway’s] completion means that 30 persons will be able to live independently in their own apartments,” said Jennifer Hibbard, CEO of View Point Health.

Residents will include people who have participated in Gwinnett County’s Mental Health Court. Superior Court Judge Karen Byers, who heads the court, attended the ribbon cutting ceremonies. “Housing is desperately needed, and I’m thrilled that [they] will have access to permanent housing,” she said.

Bridgeway Village was funded in partnership with Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Permanent Supportive Housing Program.

View Point Health is one of twenty-six community service boards in the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ statewide public safety network. View Point Health serves individuals with mental health and addiction disorders and developmental disabilities in Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties.

Commissioner Berry tours Perry Wellness Center

Last month, Commissioner Berry visited the Perry Wellness Center in Americus. Peer-founded and peer-run, the center provides unique recovery opportunities for individuals with mental illness or addictive diseases.

Founder Stuart Perry and peer Rhonda Hubbard, one of the center’s guides, led Berry and his team through the grounds, which include greenhouses, a pond and Rudy’s Happy Patch Produce Market, a public open-air market staffed by peers. The market specializes in locally and seasonally grown produce, plants and herbs.

Donations from the Americus community have contributed to growth of the campus. “To have such community support for your mission is wonderful,” said Berry. “I have visited many facilities throughout Georgia, and I am thoroughly impressed by Perry Wellness’ commitment to wellness and recovery.”

Following the tour, Berry had lunch with the peers at the center and sampled some of the market’s famed pickled okra. Before his departure, Perry presented the commissioner with a copy of his book, Journey for Life.