Hope from those who know: Lend a Hand, NAMI Washtenaw County

Tracy Harris

NAMI member

NAMI Washtenaw County is a local affiliate of NAMI — the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

Mike Dolan and NAMI teammates Sandy Gale, Barb Higman (Leader of Lend a Hand) and Rusty Sprauer. Team members not pictured: Alayna Manzanares, Annice Siders, Kimberly Sanders, Maria Alfonso, Noah Perrin, Andrew Fyles, Adam Alkhouly and Stephanie Roth.

What started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in 1979 has blossomed into the nation’s leading voice on mental health. Today, NAMI is an alliance of more than 600 local affiliates and 48 state organizations who work in communities nationwide to raise awareness and provide support and education that was not previously available to those in need.

NAMI provides advocacy, education, support, and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives.

NAMI Washtenaw County was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1984. Guided by NAMI’s core principles, we provide support and advocacy for all individuals affected by mental illness and their families. Our services are offered at no-cost to participants. Like Groundcover News, NAMI WC shares a passion for providing an “opportunity and a voice” for those facing mental health challenges.

NAMI Washtenaw County relies heavily on volunteers who assist in all aspects of the organization:

Lead Peer-to-Peer and Family-to-Family education programs.

Facilitate support groups.

Speak in hospitals, schools, churches, and other venues about personal experiences living with a mental health condition or living in support of someone who does.

Attend mental health court to help individuals navigate the criminal justice system.

Prepare and contribute articles to the online newsletter.

Exchange brochures and flyers with partner organizations, such as Ozone House, the Eisenberg Depression Center, and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.

Staff NAMI information booths at public events.

Participate in fundraising activities including the annual NAMI 5K Walk on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Support NAMI WC staff with office administration duties.

As the number of people wanting to help in the office kept increasing, there was a need to accommodate more volunteers. In early 2019, office manager, Barb Higman, and former EMU Social Work professor, Marilyn Wedenoja, launched the Lend a Hand volunteer group that met weekly to take on a variety of tasks and projects including assembling manuals for NAMI WC’s Peer-to-Peer educational program and preparing information packets for Washtenaw County Community Mental Health’s new CARES program.

By the end of March 2020, the COVID-19 quarantine made meeting in person impossible. Instead, Lend a Hand began meeting virtually. Hands-on projects were supplanted by brainstorming sessions. The goal of these sessions was to make NAMI and mental health assistance more accessible and visible to the community. Lend a Hand became a perfect tool for NAMI WC outreach projects. This also gave the group much-needed human interaction that is invaluable to all people, especially those with mental health conditions.

In the past year, Lend a Hand  already completed numerous projects including: Composing and submitting grant applications; Creating a PSA graphic for multiple uses such as bus inserts, posters and flyers; Displaying our PSA on EMU’s digital signs; Our current article forGroundcover News; Creating and distributing a survey on how we can improve our outreach efforts.

Future projects include: Writing articles for our monthly NAMI WC newsletter and The Ann Arbor Observer; Preparing an interview for the Lucy Ann Lance radio talk show; Organizing a rock painting event where river rocks will be decorated with positive messages and NAMI WC information and placed in local parks; Setting up information booths at upcoming public events; Improving connections with young people, the BIPOC community and underrepresented communities in the mental health space. 

Tracking our progress with improved data analysis.

Meet our Members

Tracy Harris, retired U-M executive assistant

I suffer from debilitating panic attacks, anxiety, clinical depression and agoraphobia and NAMI has saved my life. I was in treatment at the Chelsea Hospital when NAMI WC volunteers came in and spoke about what type of classes and support groups they offer. They passed out flyers and left. 

I didn’t even look at the flyer.

It was my third time at Chelsea and this time I was in rough shape. It wasn’t until a couple of months later I received a call from NAMI WC to see how I was. At first, I blew it off. Then I was contacted again. That’s when my involvement with NAMI started. 

I met with our wonderful volunteer coordinator and discussed volunteer opportunities, but I already knew what I wanted to do before I walked in the doors. I wanted to visit hospitals and talk about NAMI and hopefully help people as they helped me. I ended up doing that for a couple of months but wasn’t ready mentally for that type of challenge. 

I have taken Peer-to-Peer and then joined Lend a Hand. At first, it was just to get out of the house and be around people like me. We stuffed folders, made copies, and assisted in basic office operations. Then COVID-19 hit and I figured it was over with Lend a Hand, but then the group moved to Zoom. 

Since I have been with NAMI WC, I have watched a change in our group that has been so intriguing to see. Lend a Hand has become one of NAMI WC’s leading committees. Other groups come to Lend a Hand for help with their projects, whether it’s to get our opinion or other assistance.

I have thrown myself totally into my NAMI work because I care passionately. I care about my friends in the group. I care about people with mental health issues getting quality care. I care about changing the stigma. I care so deeply as I am one of those people.

I want to take every person hurting from a mental illness, or families affected by someone with a mental illness, and just hug them and tell them it’s going to be OK. I envision a world that doesn’t stigmatize me or people with a mental illness but rather embraces us.  I hope by being a part of NAMI and Lend a Hand I can help this vision come true.

Barb Higman, NAMI WC office manager

I have been living with a serious episodic mental health condition since I almost died from measles at age seven. I had to relearn how to talk and interact with other kids. I remember not being able to understand what my teacher was saying and taking a black crayon and aggressively coloring over a picture of many bright colors in an attempt to communicate what I had experienced.

I grew up to become a speech and language pathologist probably because I could relate to the difficulties posed by many speech and language pathologies. I wanted to understand how our brains work – how language and communication are possible – and help people at the same time.

Over the years, as my mental health condition erratically waxed and waned, I became convinced that mental illness is among the most serious and is perhaps the least understood of all communicative disorders. Unable to continue working after one of my many hospitalizations, I didn’t know what to do other than resign. Someone suggested I check out Trailblazers, a psychosocial clubhouse that NAMI Washtenaw County had started to provide work, support, and recreation for individuals living with mental health conditions. Trailblazers was a safe place to go during the day. It was there that I became acquainted with NAMI.

I learned NAMI WC had held a vigil at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health offices back in the early days of de-institutionalization as there were no community outreach or mental health services for people who were without housing and had mental health conditions. Impressed by this and other meaningful and noteworthy accomplishments, as well as NAMI’s recognition and understanding of the importance of peer support and lived experience, I began volunteering at the NAMI WC office.

When the office manager who mentored me moved on, I applied for the open position and was hired, becoming the second NAMI WC office manager. Now, some 16 years later, I still hold that position.

Alongside the nine staff members are the dedicated volunteers who contribute their time, energy, and talents to help make NAMI WC the vibrant organization that it is. One of the most rewarding things about my work at NAMI WC is the opportunity to engage with volunteers.

Anonymous, parent of an adult child with a mental health condition

Fifteen years ago, my wonderful, gifted, intelligent adult child started hearing voices and became extremely paranoid. I didn’t know where to turn and then a co-worker directed me to NAMI.

I spoke with Barb Higman in the NAMI WC office, and she talked about NAMI and the programs they offered for relatives and friends of people with mental illness. The Family-to-Family program was very helpful. They would occasionally bring in speakers such as doctors, police and social workers. Since so many people are not educated about mental illness it was difficult to talk about my son with others (relatives, friends, etc.) but in Family-to-Family meetings, everyone was comfortable discussing their loved one.

After many doctors, hospitalizations, and medications my child has found a semblance of normalcy. However, he will probably be on medications for the rest of his life. It is a good feeling to know that I have the support of my NAMI family. I appreciate all that NAMI does and therefore have been volunteering for over ten years.


Despite the challenge of COVID-19, NAMI Washtenaw County and Lend a Hand have continued to provide critical services to those with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, clinical depression and bipolar disorder, all of which may include a dual-diagnosis of substance abuse. This work needs to be accomplished by those who are dealing with these issues themselves: There is indeed “hope from those who know.”

The group has emerged from the quarantine with enhanced problem-solving skills and research experience as well as improved communication and technological knowledge. Lend a Hand always welcomes new members of all ages and backgrounds who bring fresh insights. Our group is both proud and humbled to be a stepping-stone to the NAMI WC of the future, and we have so much more to contribute.

Lend a Hand looks forward to expanding our presence in Chelsea, Dexter, Grass Lake, Manchester and Stockbridge — our “Five Healthy Towns” — in coordination with the work that is being done by Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. We are also reaching out to residents of Whitmore Lake and Ypsilanti. 

NAMI WC strives to help everyone in need of our specialized mental health services. We envision a world where all people affected by mental illness live healthy, fulfilling lives supported by a community that cares. Mental health matters and you are not alone.


Email: office@namiwc.org

Phone: 734-994-6611

Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Access Line: 734-544-3050


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