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David Baxter

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Virginia Beach volunteer battles schizophrenia and its image
The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.
October 19, 2007

John Sterling West was a Virginia Military Institute graduate. His younger brother, Beverley West, received a degree from the University of Virginia and was considering a career in medicine.

Eugenia Ferrell had no reason to believe her brothers would be anything but successful.

But then it became apparent that something was wrong.

The men started experiencing delusions and couldn't handle everyday decisions or tasks.

Eventually, Ferrell learned that her brothers had schizophrenia, a brain disorder that affects abou t 1 percent of American adults. The illness is believed to be linked to genetic factors as well as chemical imbalances in the brain.

That discovery prompted Ferrell to form an association dedicated to helping others with schizophrenia and their relatives.

Almost four decades later, the Kings Grant resident is still committed to the cause, though on a broader scope.

Last month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia honored the 81-year-old for her work. Ferrell received the Joshua S. Collins Award of Excellence, given to an individual, organization or NAMI-VA affiliate that has made a notable contribution to people with brain disorders.

Selection committee member Kathy Harkey, the mother of the man for which the award was named, considers Ferrell an inspiration. "Even in the '60s and '70s, when it was a taboo, she was out there talking about it and trying to help people who were too sick to talk about it," Harkey said.

Ferrell and her daughter, Natalie Trem, a Lynnhaven Woods resident, attended the Richmond ceremony. She received a certificate and $500 for NAMI-VA's Virginia Beach affiliate. "It's gratifying in any case to be recognized for the efforts that you make," Ferrell said.

Her work began in 1968 when "Gene", as she's known to family and friends, contacted the American Schizophrenia Foundation for a list of members from Virginia. A few people gathered around the kitchen table at her Richmond home to discuss forming a state affiliate.

"It was a genuine act of courage to come forward at that time," Trem wrote when nominating her mother for the Collins award. "Multitudes of families isolated themselves out of shame and guilt believing, as was the attitude of the time, that they were the cause of their loved one's illness."

Ferrell was the first president of the Schizophrenia Foundation of Virginia by the time she moved to Virginia Beach later that year. She put together a newsletter, formed support groups and started committees to handle legislative and public education issues.

The teacher-turned-stay-at-home mother also obtained an office in the Pembroke 1 building off Independence Boulevard. "Groups like ours had come up all over the country because we needed help," Ferrell said.

The foundation joined forces with NAMI in 1984, forming the Richmond-based Virginia Alliance for the Mentally Ill (now NAMI-VA). Ferrell became vice president and chairwoman of the Legislative Activities Committee. In later years she served as president and on NAMI's state board.

Gerald Lavandosky remembers traveling to Richmond with Ferrell and others for the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens of Virginia's annual rally in January. Afterwards, they'd talk with state legislators. "She's a strong advocate for the mentally ill," said Lavandosky, of Fairfield.

Since the beginning, Ferrell has tried to get rid of the stigma -- perceptions of violence, weakness and lack of control -- that comes with mental illness. She also believes people with brain disorders should be encouraged to live up to their potential, no matter what that may be.

Ferrell is not as involved as she once was, although she stays active. For three hours every Tuesday, she mans the phones at NAMI's Virginia Beach chapter -- located in the same office she procured years ago.

Trem, 48, expected her mother to slow down earlier this year when she stopped driving. Instead, Ferrell arranged a ride for her Tuesday volunteer work. Ferrell said she continues volunteering " 'cause somebody ought to do it."

She's also a longtime supporter of the Walk for Hope, a fundraiser that educates people about mental illness. Ferrell is signed up to participate in this year's walk Saturday at Mount Trashmore Park.

"She's always been the one that's done everything for everybody else," said Trem, one of Ferrell's four children. "She's never one to pass judgment on people. She's also the smartest person I know."
 

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