JACKSON — It’s not often I am completely blown away by something I didn’t know about, but that’s exactly what happened when I spent an afternoon with leaders of Canopy Children’s Solutions.
This Mississippi nonprofit, under the amazing leadership of Jon Damon and a large, active, local and enthusiastic board, has marshaled private, local, state and federal money to rescue and transform tens of thousands of young Mississippi lives.
When I left their offices, I was inspired and hopeful for the future. Their vision is a vision that needs to penetrate the consciousness of every person in our state.
And what is that vision? In my words, valuing every single person as a child of God. Not giving up on anybody. Providing the direction and resources to save at-risk young people and getting them back on track so they can lead happy, productive lives.
I toured Canopy’s residential school, located behind Millsaps College, that serves 40 students who could not fit in at their public schools. The facilities were upbeat, modern and clean with lots of greenspace. The children seemed happy and engaged. Everyone had a positive attitude.
It’s inspiring: The hardest children in the state to teach, children who were uncontrollable at their schools, getting their acts together and making enough progress to return to their schools and be successful students.
Forty years ago, we beat and punished these children in run-down juvenile jails. Today, Canopy is loving and nurturing these children at their Children’s Solutions School. (I love that name!)
Starting as a small charity in Meridian, Canopy has grown to a $33 million organization with offices, schools and clinics around the state with 446 employees. They are addressing mental challenges for young people including ADHD, autism, substance abuse, therapeutic foster care, abuse and depression among others. Last year they transformed the lives of 5,092 young people.
One in five young people will battle serious mental illness during their childhood and adolescence. Growing up in this volatile and overwhelming new world is hard enough. When faced with mental illness, the obstacles become insurmountable without help. Canopy is dedicated to getting people this help.
There’s a long way to go: Approximately 75,000 young Mississippians will face serious mental illness at some point growing up. Only a small fraction are getting appropriate treatment. If we can help these young people get through these rough periods, they can go on to become productive citizens. But far too often, our system makes a young person’s crisis worse, sending them on a downward spiral that condemns them for a lifetime.
Mental illness is the cruelest of all physical problems. First, there is an age-old stigma of mental illness as somehow implying weakness. If a person has severe allergies, we don’t blame the person, yet somehow we cannot separate the mind from the body.
The brain is an organ. It’s an incredibly complex machine which houses our souls. Its inherent complexity makes it prone to failure. Every one of us is just a few stressful events from mental illness.
Canopy’s attitude is this: If your child had an ear infection, you would naturally take your child to a doctor. Mental illness is no different. If a child suddenly loses interest in hobbies, becomes obstinate or withdrawn and begins declining in school, then seek help. Get your child to a doctor. Call Canopy. Seek help. Don’t delay.
Canopy board member Andy Taggart has a passion for Canopy stemming from the loss of his son to addiction and mental illness. He had no clue. He is on a mission to transform his pain into good by helping other parents to be aware.
Awareness is so crucial. Struggling children have little insight to what’s plaguing them and how to seek help. The same is true with their parents. As a state, we have to change the culture from one of embarrassment to one of awareness, acceptance and action.
We toured the cutting-edge autism behavioral therapy Center for Excellence on Lakeland Drive. I saw enthusiastic young therapists working with young children on the autistic spectrum. One in 59 children is on the autistic spectrum, yet this is one of the first treatment centers in the state. Only just recently have state laws been amended to require treatment. One of Canopy’s biggest objectives is to fight for decent insurance coverage for autism, ADHD and other mental issues confronting young people.
The tour of the autism behavior therapy center was both a painful and a joyous moment for me. Painful because I was just a mile from my home, but 15 years away from the time Ginny and I desperately sought treatment for our child. There was none in Mississippi, and the costs out of state were outrageous. The new behavior therapies were in their infancy. They are now proven to be effective, and I was filled with joy when I saw these autistic spectrum children laughing and engaging with other children their age in a positive environment free from bullying and humiliation. What could have been for us is now a reality for other parents.
I was blessed to be born highly functional. In my egotistical ignorance I went for decades blaming others for their lack of success. We all have a free will, a choice.
Having raised two children with disabilities — one on the autistic spectrum and one with severe ADHD, I realize now just how ignorant I was all these years. Perhaps God gave me those parental challenges to speak out and help change our state’s attitude in some infinitesimally small way. We must change our state’s culture from one of punishment and retribution to one of love and rehabilitation. There is no other way.
Canopy’s mission ties into the current efforts at criminal justice reform. Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Many of these prisoners are mentally ill. They were beat down before they ever had a chance. Now they are broken souls and wards of the state. It is a costly public policy error in terms of both money and spirit.
The state spends $400 million locking people up. We spend a billion on higher education. Put that in the context of Canopy’s $33 million budget. If we would spend more on the front end healing young souls, we would get our money back and then some from the prison budget and be better people for it.
If we can catch the signs early and get these young people appropriate treatment, given in the context of hope and love, we can stop the vicious cycle that is holding our state back.
Canopy is a perfect vehicle for this transformation. It is completely local with engaged members of our community, yet it contracts with local, state and federal governmental agencies to provide services. It is the best of both worlds — local responsiveness tied to the power of the public purse.
After years of quietly working behind the scenes, Canopy is ready to step out, actively publicize their mission and ramp up their public and private funding to expand their mission. They are seeking transformation. It will take time, but their philosophy will prevail in the end and the world will be a better place for it.
One statement from my grandfather Oliver Emmerich has forever stayed in my mind. “Mississippi cannot afford to leave a single person behind.” Those words ring true today. The lock ’em up and throw away the key mentality must end. It’s true for adults, but it’s even more true for our children.
Jesus Christ tried to explain this to us. His words couldn’t be any clearer. How many times are we to forgive? Seventy times seven. He told us what we do to those in prison, we do to him. His anger was reserved to haughty high functioners who looked down their noses at the struggling sinners.
It’s been hard for me to finally come to the realization that all these years I was wrong. But it’s not too late for me or our state.