In 1994, Betty Livingston joined the board of the Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center to make a difference. Since 1996, she has been the chairwoman of the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting residents with mental health disabilities.
“I feel that there is less of a stigma today about having a mental disability, but I also think more education is needed,” Livingston said. “Most people do not fully understand how severely one’s life can be impacted by a mental illness. For example, I’ve heard people say that a depressed friend or family member just needs to ‘buck up.’"
Now, as Livingston steps down from her position as chairwoman, the board honored her years of service to the city.
At a ceremony last week, members of the Alexandria Community Service Board and Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center hosted a reception in her honor. Elected officials and city staff gathered to remember Livingston’s tireless work on behalf of those in need.
In addition to her work with the mental health center, Livingston also volunteers for a host of civic and religious organizations. Susan Drachsler, who was recently installed as co-chair of Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center, said that Livingston is often fundraising, writing or organizing for local charities.
"She doesn’t just do the administrative stuff,” Drachsler said. “When people don’t have a ride, she will drive them to the dentist. That’s what kind of a person she is.”
More than half of the people served by the city's mental health center have an annual income under $10,000. That’s why the Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center assist those who have limited funds. These people are often living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how they will pay their rent and utilities while avoiding eviction.
The nonprofit organization helps people buy clothing for job interviews and books to pursue future employment. On the social side, the organization also sponsors bowling games, movie screenings and social events at the West End Club, the city’s daytime support program for people with serious mental disabilities.
“Recreation is part of recovery,” Livingston said.
LIVINGSTON THINKS that the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse is the city’s hidden gem, toiling in obscurity while other departments get the spotlight. Ultimately, she would like the word to get out that the city has services for those with mental disabilities.
“I’m always surprised when people tell me they didn’t know Alexandria has a Mental Health Center,” Livingston said. “The city offers counseling, referrals and a wide variety of services to all residents.”
Livingston originally joined the board of the nonprofit after being asked by Alexandria Mental Health Center founder Lois Van Valkenburgh. Livingston said she was impressed by the way the organization could respond quickly to requests from the city’s mental health care caseworkers.
“We don’t have to wait for a special time of the month to contribute funds,” Livingston said. “Friends can act immediately to keep people in their homes or help with small but vital needs like dentures or last minute prescriptions. Working with other groups in Alexandria, we can provide the first dollars or the last dollars.”
The organization’s annual fund-drive usually raises about $10,000 from individuals and religious and civic organizations. Livingston will remain on the board of the nonprofit organization, working with the new co-chairs, Tiffeny Sanchez-Brown and Susan Drachsler.