By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — When Cheryl Naperala took a social work job at the Traverse City State Hospital in the late 1960s, she never imagined it would lead to a career in mental health.
Now the Muskegon native is one of the system's biggest advocates, with more than 40 years working with area agencies like Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, the Foundation for Mental Health and the Greater Grand Traverse Area Continuum of Care.
"What strikes me is that every day these people get up, put their best foot forward and try to make the best of their lives," said Naperala, 66, board secretary and former director with the Foundation for Mental Health, which helps provide housing and support services for low-income homeless people with mental illness, substance abuse issues and HIV/AIDS. "They have a lot of obstacles and challenges, but they keep trying. I thought they deserved supportive housing to help them with their own hopes and dreams."
The foundation owns and leases housing units scattered around the five-county region, through grants from federal, state and local matching programs like HUD and MSHDA. It also partners with local agencies to provide the support services that clients need. Altogether it houses about 80 people and their families.
"In the beginning we had to do a lot of advocacy with local landlords to convince them to rent to the foundation and let us sublease to clients," said Naperala, adding that clients pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent. "But because we have grants, we're able to pay rent on time every month. Also we're able to provide support services, so if a client had a problem, the landlord had someone to call. Eventually a lot of community landlords liked (the arrangement) because they had a regular renter that didn't move out. And they came to realize that these people are people. It's interesting to see how landlords have come to like their renters and even hang out with them."
Getting residents to accept someone with a mental illness living in their neighborhood was another challenge. Naperala recalls in particular one woman with severe schizophrenia.
"She heard voices almost constantly and talked to them almost constantly — and not always very nicely," said Naperala, who has a bachelor's degree in social work from Central Michigan University. "When she moved to an apartment in town, there was concern by the neighbors about this. We met with the neighbors and explained mental illness and I think they explained it to their children. It wasn't three or four or five months after that, that the neighbors were calling, saying, 'Cheryl, I think she needs a winter coat. I have a winter coat but she won't take it. If I drop it off at your office, will you take it to her?'
"We've seen a gradual change in the community in acceptance of these people."
Naperala said statistics show that when those with mental illness have a place to call their own and the services that allow them to stay there, their return rate to psychiatric hospitals and prisons is lower.
"We've seen that in our own community," she said. "I see not only the benefit to the community but to the people we serve."
Foundation for Mental Health Executive Director Emilee Syrewicze said Naperala is instrumental in scoping out funding opportunities and has brought roughly $13 million in housing assistance to the area through her work as coordinator with the Grand Traverse Area Continuum of Care. The "CoC" is a collaborative of human services organizations and people interested in ending homelessness by working together to provide services and to obtain funds for emergency shelter, transitional housing and stable homes for families and individuals.
"I am convinced she is so successful at these efforts to assist the homeless and mental health because she is a doer. She has an uncanny ability to see a need and recognize it's there and take steps to meet it," Syrewicze said. "As a board member, she's always very willing to do the hands-on stuff that most board members are not. She'd rather help our clients and clean up our properties than sit in a board room."
Retired Jan. 1 from the CoC, Naperala said she'll continue to work on the Foundation for Mental Health board "as long as they'll let me.
"I'm going to keep the door open and see what happens," she said.