An interview with Kevin O’Brien, one of our newest board members, and his 15-year courtship with Maybelle Center.
As Kevin rounds the corner, he is greeted by the familiar musty smell of the old apartment as he enters the dimly lit hall. He knocks on Billy’s door, waits for what seems like five minutes, before seeing a pair of eyeballs peak inquiringly through the crack. Recognizing Kevin and his visitation partner, Billy opens the door, examines the hallway, and says “ok, I know you guys, come on in,” before quickly slamming the door.
A wonderful human behind the mask of paranoia
It was 2002, and Kevin O’Brien was a junior at the University of Portland on one of his first volunteer visitations with Maybelle Center (then Macdonald Center). He was seeing first-hand the toll that undiagnosed mental health took on a person. Billy had schizophrenia and was isolated due to his paranoia.
Kevin said his experience “was really powerful – just putting yourselves in his shoes and the world Billy lives in. Some days were better than others. But once you started talking to him, Billy was a great guy, and he had a lot of interesting stories. Billy just wanted to connect,” but his mental health challenges were a barrier.
An intimate connection to Florence, mental health, and isolation
Kevin was no stranger to the isolating effects of mental health challenges. Kevin tells the story of his great Aunt Florence and their unusual relationship:
“My great aunt had some real health issues like epilepsy, learning disabilities and depression. And back then epilepsy wasn’t thought of very highly. She was never married and socially isolated. She ended up moving to Santa Rosa where I lived when I was a teenager, and I was her only outlet. I would go shop for her ever week and just sit with her and watch Jeopardy or whatever else.
I think that really opened my eyes because as much as we wanted to help, she lived in subsidized housing and she was under the watch of the state. I think that resonated with me because I saw how much my visits meant to Aunt Florence.”
The weight of nameless faces in other doorways
But it wasn’t just the plight of Kevin’s great aunt that weighed heavily on him. Every time he went to go visit Florence, his chest felt heavy as he thought about “the other people down the hall that don’t have anybody coming to visit them.”
And it was this experience that drove him to initially volunteer with the Macdonald Center. He saw first-hand the impact of social isolation and how a simple visit could mean the world for the person. He knew that “some people might be a little intimidated by going into a strange apartment and talking with someone who might be a little different.” But Kevin liked to talk to people and was intimately familiar with the effects of mental health.
It was imprinted on his heart through the ebb and flow of life
There is a natural ebb and flow of life, and good things don’t always last forever. After two years of volunteering at Maybelle Center, Kevin graduated from college and felt the pull of a financial services career in San Francisco. His demanding field didn’t leave much time for volunteering.
But Kevin’s experience with his Aunt Florence and his time at the Maybelle Center had imprinted on his heart. Even during these years while he focused on his career, he and a few of his closest friends would annually give back in an unconventional way:
“Each year we would host a big party for St. Patrick’s Day and we would rent out a bar, have musicians and even pied pipers. We’d have like 400 people at these parties. And we’d have a raffle and raise tens of thousands of dollars. We’d donate all of it to a local soup kitchen in San Francisco. I think that’s how I stayed connected with those that struggle with mental illness. Maybe sub-consciously.”
While Kevin’s Irish heritage might have influenced how he gave back to his community during those years, he actively stayed involved in caring for his community.
Putting down roots and uncovering an old relationship
When Kevin came back to Portland about five years ago, he was in the thick of changing diapers and chasing a toddler. After he felt more established in his career and found the groove in parenting, Kevin was ready to “put down roots.” He says that a big “part of that [is] how you give back.”
Kevin recalled one Thanksgiving Day when he was driving around Portland with his family and seeing all the people shivering on Portland’s streets. Knowing that you are “going home to have a really nice dinner. That doesn’t make you feel good” when there are so many that don’t have that luxury.
There is a tension inside of you that is hard to squelch. “You can see in people’s eyes when they’re lonely and sad. Like when you see a homeless person, I always try to say ‘hi.’ And if I can’t give them money, then at least I’m acknowledging they’re a person. It’s easy to put your head down or just walk by but what good does that do?”
Resolving the tension inside with a “get-it-done” attitude
Kevin has always been a “get-things-done” type of person. And he felt compelled to do something. “Poverty and mental health is obviously something that’s in front of everybody’s face. But a lot of people choose not to address it. I look at problems head-on and ask “how can I help?”
As Kevin was browsing organizations he could support, he came across the Maybelle Center. He said, “Hey, it’s the Macdonald Center! It changed its name. But it looks like they’re doing a good job, so I think I’ll send some money that way.”
Kevin wasn’t sure if he had the time to volunteer in the visitation program like he had in college, but he wanted to do something to give back. He said, “I just feel like I have the means to do it, then it makes sense.”
One of the core tenets of the Maybelle Center really resonated with Kevin: “The health of a community can be measured by how its members care for each other.” He sees a close parallel with his aunt and the members at Maybelle Center:
“A lot of these people are not unlike my great aunt. She would sit in the mall by herself, and nobody would acknowledge her. That’s heartbreaking – that somebody is part of my family. When you kind of distil it down, people just want to connect with one another.
And if people aren’t being treated for issues they have, then that’s kind of on us as a society to reach out to them and say “listen, you’re dealing with an issue, let’s help. I don’t think that ignoring it or isolating folks and saying ‘they’re struggling, it’s their fault’ is going to do anybody any good.”
Reigniting old passions with an invitation
Kevin’s passion for Maybelle Center couldn’t be hidden. It wasn’t long before Maybelle Center uncovered Kevin’s long-standing relationship with the Maybelle Center and his background in financial services. Jon Ulsh invited him to join the Board of Directors earlier this year. Kevin says he’s,
“Excited to jump in and use the skill sets that I have to assist in any way possible to make this a better world. And as life gets a little more stable, I don’t want to just be on the board, I want to participate “boots on the ground.”
Even though I’ve already been part of visitations in college and I understand what it is, I think it’s a good to stay in touch with the people you’re serving. I can connect to the work a little more.”
Falling a little more in love with Maybelle Center
Kevin knows first-hand that the closer you are to the work of a nonprofit, the more it becomes personal and comes to life in front of you. Because of Florence and Billy, he intimately knows the soul-crushing effects of mental illness and isolation on a person. Kevin says,
“People don’t realize – the type of impact you have. There often isn’t instant gratification because you might not get the kind of communication you’re used to. But you can tell deep down that there’s a huge impact. You are providing an outlet that’s going to make their life so much more fulfilling.
When you walk around the streets you see people’s heads down – they often look tired, lost, lonely, and sometimes confused. When you walk in [to Maybelle Center], you can just tell they [members] feel safe. The Center provides shelter, safety, and comfort. They have peers. People are looking out for them. You aren’t going to have that on the streets.
That is pretty powerful. It shows the benefits of what community actually means to someone who’s probably been dealt a very difficult hand in life.”
What started out as a simple college service project, connected to something deep inside of Kevin and shaped who he is today. And as he gets closer to the organization, he feels excitement, pride and a little bit of the warm fuzzy feeling we hold in our heart, love. Thank you, Kevin, for sharing your heart and your talent with the Maybelle Center.