While “hope” was intended to be the theme word for the Signs of Hope gala, “generosity” was certainly a close second.

“We want to celebrate what’s happening in mental health in Maine,” said Nancy Pond, who hosted the 175-person event at her home in Cape Elizabeth with her husband, Kirk.

In addition to the Ponds, there are the Lunders – who inspired the Lunder Family Alliance at Spring Harbor Hospital – and scores of other donors gathered to celebrate a new initiative in behavioral health care.

“This is the first step in our $1 million fundraising campaign,” said Mary Jane Krebs, president of Spring Harbor Hospital, at the garden party that raised $90,000. “It’s destigmatizing mental illness, and it’s changing how mental health services are delivered.”

“We have family members who have mental illness, and we know they can have a real life,” said Rona Purdy, former national chairperson of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We know that having a program from the beginning is critical. We had to serve as case manager for our own kids. And it’s not easy. You need a total continuum of care.”

“These are the people who have given birth to this program,” philanthropist Paula Lunder said, modestly deferring to Rona and Ken Purdy. “We followed in their footsteps.”

“Mental health is a huge underfunded, underrepresented need in Maine,” said Jack Emory, president of the Lunder Foundation. “It’s staggering.”

The new program under the Lunder Family Alliance has a dual focus: employment and education for the patient, and helping that person’s family navigate the mental health system. It’s available to incoming psychiatric patients ages 18 to 30.

“The program will teach people – and their families – to be advocates,” Ken Purdy said. “It’s the beginning of serious change.”

The employment counseling portion addresses an alarming statistic: Maine’s percentage of unemployment among those with mental illness is the highest in the nation, at 92.6 percent. Just a few weeks ago employment specialists began working with patients to find jobs or return to work after being away for treatment.

“We are gaining on mental illness,” said Maria Glaser, development committee member. “Never underestimate the power of one – one person, one job, one life.”

“This is a wonderful part of our community – to have somewhere to go when families are in crisis,” said Jane Peterson, a host committee member. “I think all of us know someone who has suffered from mental illness.”

“It’s everywhere,” said Cheryl Rust, a community volunteer. “No one is untouched.”

“Ask for help, because help is out there,” said social worker Paula Banks, who has volunteered on the Signs of Hope host committee for seven years. “There’s no blame – it’s an illness.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

[email protected]