National Recovery Month Planning Partners Honors Cassandra Price, Director of Addictive Services in the state of Georgia, with the Ramstad/Kennedy Award for Outstanding Leadership

Press Release -Washington, DC (May 25, 2017) – The tenth Annual Ramstad/Kennedy Award for outstanding leadership recognizes Cassandra Price, Director of Addictive Services in the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, who is being honored for her leadership in recovery support programs across her state and nationally. The award was established in honor of Congressmen Jim Ramstad and Patrick Kennedy. The two Congressmen have been vocal advocates of recovery support services in all forms, and championed localized efforts to support prevention, treatment and recovery.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration  (SAMHSA) recognizes that long-term recovery is not only possible, but is the goal of addiction and mental illness treatment and support programs. The 2017 honoree has worked to spread this positive message and the message that prevention can be effective in helping to break the cycle of addiction in families.

Cassandra designed the program to support families dealing with addiction and those whose loved ones are in recovery.  She is recognized for her leadership and untiring spirit for the field, the state and most importantly for those whose lives have been touched by substance use disorders. “She has worked to engage state agencies and create change, statewide, that will provide enduring resources for residents and encourage recovery for the future benefit of Georgia families and communities,” said Sis Wenger, National Association of Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), a Recovery Month partner.

“Together in partnership with the dedicated organizations who comprise the Recovery Month Planning Partners, recovery success stories have become commonplace in Georgia, in part because of Cassandra’s on-going and exceptional commitment,” Wenger continued.

“The recipient of the Ramstad/Kennedy award embodies the innovation of a leader dedicated to support prevention, treatment and recovery in their community. On behalf of over 200 collaborating organizations in the Recovery Month Planning Partners, we congratulate Cassandra on her vision and commitment” said Recovery Month partner Marie Gallo Dyak, President of the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc.

Both Retired Minnesota 3rd district representative Jim Ramstad and Retired Rhode Island 1st district representative Patrick J. Kennedy also championed a mental health and addiction parity law in 2008 requiring easily accessible health insurance coverage for mental illness and addiction treatment.  Together the Congressmen have sponsored Recovery Month and other programs to further therapy, treatment and recovery services for these illnesses across the country. The award in their names honors a recipient who has shown upmost commitment in expanding the prospects for recovery of addicted persons and their families and for persons with mental illnesses.

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Sis Wenger @

Marie Gallo Dyak @

Forensic Peer Mentor Program Expands to Help More Georgia Returning Citizens

Cohort 3 convened at GDC’s State Offices South at Tift College in Forsyth, GA for the 40 hour Forensic Peer Mentor Training, facilitated by Jill Mays (DBHDD; 1st row, 3rd from the left), Jonathan “DJ” Rees (The Main Link, Pennsylvania; 1st row, 2nd from right), and Sharon Williams (GMHCN; 2nd row, far right).

In 2014, Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), Department of Corrections (GDC), and the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network (GMHCN) embarked on a partnership to offer innovative peer support to Georgia’s returning citizens through the Forensic Peer Mentor Program. In 2015, the partnership expanded to include the newly formed Department of Community Supervision (DCS). Plans are underway for the program to expand into additional facilities in January 2017.

On November 28, 2016, the third cohort of 15 certified peer specialists (CPS) and certified addiction recovery empowerment specialists (CARES) began the weeklong training designed to help them use their own experience in the criminal justice system and their recovery from a behavioral health disorder to help the people that they will support.  As forensic peer mentors, they will help individuals leaving correctional facilities with transition/release planning; obtaining stable housing; employment; disability benefits; transportation coordination; linkage to community behavioral  health services and recovery supports; and learning new skills.

The training was facilitated by Jonathan “DJ” Rees, a subject matter expert on the forensic peer movement, as well as the Sequential Intercept Model, an emerging best practice that assists communities in identifying points of interception along the criminal justice system continuum where stakeholders can intervene to prevent individuals with mental illness from going to jail/prison due to offenses that may be related to their symptoms.

According to Rees, “when returning citizens are released from jail, they face challenges like discrimination in being hired for a job and finding housing in the community.  Despite these challenges, peer support can reduce the recidivism rate of people returning to jail.”

Upcoming program expansion will include placement of forensic peer mentors at four GDC state prison sites, two DCS day reporting centers, one mental health court, and one DBHDD regional hospital. This expansion brings the total number of the forensically trained CPS and CARES workforce across the state to 37, and increases the number of worksites from 11 to 17.

“Since enrolling our first returning citizen in April of 2015 into the Forensic Peer Mentor program, the program has really taken off,” said Jill Mays, assistant director of DBHDD’s Office of Adult Mental Health and coordinator of the Forensic Peer Mentor Program.  “Data shows that we have been able to greatly increase successful re-entry and reduce the recidivism rate for individuals with mental illness and/or co-occurring substance use disorders who are being released from prison or on probation/parole.  Our belief is that with support from the forensic peer mentors and other appropriate community resources, all returning citizens have the capacity to live and thrive in the community.”

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: Advantage Behavioral Health

E. B. is a 52-year-old woman who receives DBHDD supported employment services and participates in the Georgia Department of Community Affair’s Shelter Plus Care housing program. Ms. B. has a history of substance abuse and incarceration, but she had a strong desire to get her life back on a positive track. However, due to her background, many employers were reluctant to hire her.

Determined not to be defined by her past, she enrolled in a peer recovery program, from which she graduated in 2013, and was referred into supported employment services in February 2014. With the help of her employment specialist, Ms. B. applied and was hired for a position as a housekeeper at a Courtyard Marriott in her community. She has been in this position for four months and has learned additional job skills to help her achieve her employment and housing goals.

Advantage Behavioral Health Systems is one of twenty-six community service boards in the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ statewide public safety network. Advantage Behavioral Health Systems serves individuals with mental health and addiction disorders and developmental disabilities in Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Madison, Morgan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties.

Memories of Ken Whiddon


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.

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.”

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.