“Imagine that [this] was the best compliment you ever received: ‘Wow you are really normal,’” Rosie King said in her September 2014 TED Talk, How Autism Freed Me to Be Myself.

King, a nineteen year-old creative writer and activist, would rather be “extraordinary” and “amazing.”  

“If people want to be these things, why are so many people striving to be normal?” King asks in her TED Talk, “Why are people pouring their brilliant, individual light into a mold?”

Next week, King will deliver the keynote speech at the 15th annual Builders of Hope Breakfast, a fundraising and educational event organized by the Clifford Beers Clinic. Founded over 100 years ago by Clifford Beers, class of 1897 — a pioneer in the mental health movement and Yale graduate who struggled with mental illness — the clinic strives to provide children and families in the Greater New Haven Area with comprehensive psychiatric care.

“The clinic is really the legacy of [Beers’] work in outpatient mental health. So our real, true mission is, as a mental health clinic, to serve children and families,” said Trude Piscitelli, director of medical and health services administration at Clifford Beers. “Our goal is to provide integrated services … to try and improve health resiliency and the quality of life.”

The clinic’s annual Builders of Hope Breakfast aims to build awareness about mental health and generate support for the organization. This year, the breakfast will promote the work of Clifford Beers’ Marne Street facility, which opened in November 2017. Dedicated to caring for people with developmental disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome, the new location already serves roughly 500 patients.

According to Pieter Joost van Wattum, chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs at Clifford Beers, the Marne Street facility was established after increasing numbers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities sought care from the clinic’s main location. After three years of development and discussion, the Marne Street center now offers psychiatry, pediatric care, language therapy and behavioral analysis to its clientele.

“Ever since we opened, we’ve been flooded with referrals and new patients. It’s really a success,” van Wattum said. “It’s really amazing to see from where people are coming from.”

Last year, the Builders of Hope Breakfast featured writer Ron Suskind, who talked about using Disney movie characters to help his son, who has autism, break through the communication barrier.

In the past, keynote speakers have also addressed issues beyond developmental disability. Previous keynote speakers include Ruby Bridges, a civil rights activist, and Sapphire, an author and spoken word artist.

As part of the clinic’s education and advocacy efforts, the annual breakfast offers the opportunity for community members to hear firsthand accounts of people’s experiences with mental health issues, Piscitelli said. The Builders of Hope keynote speaker is also a tradition that aligns with the work of Beers, who dedicated his life’s work to generating dialogue about mental health.

“New Haven is really rich in resources and has a really wonderful philanthropic heart. Sixteen years ago, a group of people connected with Clifford Beers and said ‘why don’t we gather some community leaders … and convene and talk about things that make for a more vibrant community, child by child, family by family?’” said Sheryl McNamee, director of public affairs at the Clifford Beers Clinic. “And so this Builders of Hope concept was born, that people in the room would be those who deliver hope, with the long-range goal of building a community that is healthy and well.”

The Clifford Beers Clinic is also engaged with various other initiatives to promote empathy and understanding for those with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. The clinic has a presence in 11 New Haven public schools, where it works with teachers to understand trauma that students may face. According to McNamee, trauma from gun violence in students is one issue that the clinic hopes to address through this “collaborative approach.”

“Fostering mental health in young adults and children is extremely important, because the research has shown that most mental illnesses start in the teenage and young adults years,” says Hieronimus Loho ’18, president of the Mental Health Educators student group at Yale. “These years represent a time of transition and growth, which is both exciting and stressful at the same time.”

Beyond partnering with local public schools, the clinic has recently trained nurses and medical students from Yale and Quinnipiac universities. By offering opportunities for contact with people with disabilities, Clifford Beers hopes to teach health care providers and students, making them more capable and confident when treating patients.

“There are not a lot of providers in the community that know how to treat or feel capable of working with a client with a disability,” said Piscitelli. “We’re really hoping to partner with some schools to do more training and provide more education so that … students have more contact with nonverbal clients and feel more comfortable working with patients, so those are some of our overarching goals here at Marne Street.”

The 15th Annual Builders of Hope Breakfast will be held at Cascade Fine Catering on April 11.

Ruiyan wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu

Editor’s note, April 10: Due to an editing error, the first paragraph of the story, which ran in print on April 9, was not included online. This version of the story has been updated accordingly.