Although public speaking is not her favorite thing, Sandra Sorensen, the new executive director of the Finger Lakes chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), took the microphone like a seasoned emcee, welcomed the organization’s supporters, and led them in a countdown for her first fundraising walk.
“Four! Three! Two! One! Yay! Let’s go, everybody!” she shouted. With that, a hundred or so folks filed between two tall pillars of blue and green balloons and began a trek under a clear-blue sky along Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca’s Cass Park.
The results from Sorensen’s first NAMIWalks event on May 6 were gratifying: 113 individuals and 16 teams collected more than $24,000, three times the organization’s goal of $8,000. Sorensen herself was the top fundraiser, bringing in $3,120 in donations. (Buoyant Punk was the leading fundraising team, with $5,100.)
To make a late DONATION, go to the NAMIWalks webpage here.
NAMIWalks in Cass Park
For all her enthusiasm, Sorensen’s initial connection with NAMI Finger Lakes, a decade ago, was not under the best of circumstances.
Her husband Michael was struggling with mental illness, but because of stigma he kept that to himself. A friend told Sorensen about NAMI’s Family to Family Program, a group where people can get support and learn how to best aid loved ones. Once a week, she would get the kids to bed, then sneak out to join the group’s meetings.
“It was something I had to do, but it had to be done in secret,” Sorensen recalled. “My husband kept this part of himself private. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was surprised to learn that what I really needed was how to better take care of me so I could support him.”
“I felt supported and understood by all the others in the class going through similar things,” she added. “I no longer felt alone. I was, for the first time, able to share my story in a confidential, safe space. Nobody made any judgement on my husband, something he was so fearful about. There was no stigma, and no judgement. Only empathy and love.”
Walking for Mental Health
Michael’s story, like too many others, Sorensen shared, ended in tragedy. He died by suicide in 2021. As she and her five children grieved the loss and adapted to their new life, Sorensen decided she could use her experiences to help others, just as NAMI support group members had done for her. When the position at NAMI-FL opened up last year, she jumped at the opportunity.
NAMI is a national grassroots organization founded in 1979 and dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI-FL provides free support, education, and advocacy for people closest to those living with mental health conditions.
At NAMI-FL, Sorensen explained, it’s all about peer support. A NAMI-FL help line is staffed by volunteers with lived experience, helping callers feel heard and supported. The same goes for the Family to Family Program, which NAMI-FL offers as an eight-week class. Sorensen oversees NAMI-FL’s programs, with the goal of helping people facing similar situations to her own not feel alone. More projects are in the works.
Sorensen’s passion for mental health advocacy and nonprofit management is shaping a career journey she never expected. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1995 with a degree in Polymer/Plastics Engineering, and worked in the field for six years before leaving to homeschool her children. Eventually, she took a bookkeeping job with a pregnancy crisis nonprofit, using skills she’d picked up from her husband’s construction business.
After volunteering to help with bookkeeping at Second Wind Cottages, she ended up staying on as the nonprofit’s first executive director.” “I was there through the pandemic, and it was disheartening to see how quickly the need for mental health care was escalating in the community and throughout the world,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen’s main goal as NAMI-FL executive director is to promote the organization’s services. She describes the challenge of reaching people who desperately need connections yet are unaware of NAMI-FL’s programs. “It’s a hard pill for me to swallow,” she said. “This supportive organization exists without many people knowing about it, but they should. No one deserves to feel lost in crisis.”
Support, Education, Advocacy
NAMI-FL board member Kathy Taylor, who likewise first became connected to NAMI when a family member was struggling, is thrilled to have Sorensen on board.
“Her passion for the mission of NAMI is clear,” Taylor said. “She has a true understanding of the burdens of mental illness, and she’s using her knowledge to destigmatize and advocate for all who struggle.”
Taylor supports Sorensen’s goal of raising NAMI-FL’s profile in the community. “We need to continue making connections with outside organizations, supporting each other the best we can, in order to help destigmatize mental illness all over. The more people that know about us and what we stand for, the more support we can offer.”
NAMI Finger Lakes volunteers Jason Hungerford and Melissa Lorah
Sorensen no longer tiptoes when leaving home for NAMI meetings. As the local chapter’s executive director, she is determined to spread the word about the organization’s support services to everyone within earshot and beyond. Judging from her NAMIWalks success, people are listening.
NAMI Finger Lakes help line can be reached at (607) 273-2462 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lyndsey Honor, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College, majoring in Writing and minoring in Honors, French, and Theatre. She is the managing editor of the school’s Stillwater Magazine and has written for the Ithaca Times.