top of page

2021 End of Year Update

Dear Family and Friends (which includes all of you who have supported The Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial Foundation (MHOMF) in the past or will agree to consider doing so in the future),

Let me begin with an apology. In recent years, we have gotten better about sending in conjunction with “Giving Tuesday” our annual summary of the Foundation’s activities for the year about to close. This year, we didn’t make it. Instead, we spent the days immediately preceding “Giving Tuesday” out of town, at the funeral of a dear cousin we had just lost.

As I was sitting at our cousin’s memorial service, my thoughts unintentionally wandered to the time 7 years ago (on January 3), when Norm, Danny, my sister Pam, and I were the ones in the front row, in a state of shock, at our son Matthew’s funeral, surrounded by so many friends and family members who had come to support us. In subsequent years, that support has only grown, as those of you who were there in early 2015 have stuck with us, and scores and scores more of you have “signed on,” through your generous donations to MHOMF and in so many other ways. This seems like the right time to thank you for being there for us, and with us, so that we can be there for others, preserving Matthew’s legacy and turning our grief to purpose. We are truly deeply grateful.

If you are new to our foundation, let me explain that, rather than spending precious dollars on glossy fundraising materials and annual reports, I simply draft a letter each November or December, summarizing our activities in the year just ending and sharing some plans for future activities in furtherance of the Foundation’s two-pronged mission.

First, MHOMF seeks to honor the remarkable young man that Matthew was before his illness took hold, by funding, and running in conjunction with the Washington Urban Debate League (WUDL), a summer debate institute for primarily Title I students, rising 6th through 12th graders. Second, we work on projects to improve our country’s broken mental health system, the failures of which, we believe, conspired to deprive Matthew of his promising and beautiful life, and on projects to provide help now to family members who are struggling with ill loved ones.

Remembering Matthew during the happy times is a key focus of the Foundation’s work. As many of you know, Matthew was a champion debater in high school. With his partner Alex Berger, he won many national tournaments. But the most meaningful aspect of Matthew’s debate career was the friends he made along the way. Nowhere was this more evident than during the summers he spent at the University of Michigan’s summer debate camp. There, he had the opportunity to hone his craft and form close bonds with other debaters. Shortly after Matthew’s death, in partnership with WUDL, MHOMF established the Matthew Harris Ornstein Summer Debate Institute to celebrate the happiness, and honor the success, Matthew found in debate.

This year, almost 200 children, from 54 schools, the majority of which were Title 1 schools from all over greater Washington, participated in the 7th annual Institute from July 19 – August 7 (the initial week being varsity only with, for the first time, students from around the country). No one expected things to be easy during these complicated times but, unlike in 2020 when debate camp was entirely virtual, this year we wanted to offer students their choice of either a virtual or an in-person camp experience, despite increasing our costs and almost doubling our preparations.

Foremost among those preparations was taking every possible precaution to insure the health and safety of our students. Nonetheless, as (bad) luck would have it, despite all our planning, we had to transition the whole camp to virtual at the end of the first full week, when one of our fully vaccinated coaches had a positive test result in one of our required weekly screenings, precisely when the country’s first break-through COVID cases were emerging. But, as a tribute to everyone’s resilience, good humor, and devotion to the Institute, after a weekend of round-the-clock effort, each of our staff and all our students were on the virtual platform early Monday AM, picking up right where they had left off!

As always, the national debate topic for the coming academic year is announced in January, so that students who are so inclined can use the summer to get a jump on their preparations. Also, as always, the topic is always one relevant to an issue of national, and often international, importance. This year, that issue - protection of water resources - was no exception. From bans on fracking, less use of plastic bottles, lead in the water supply, and climate change, our students had plenty to debate.

Each year, MHOMF and WUDL ensure that our students are exposed to experts on the chosen national topic. This year’s guest speakers included an individual working on lead contamination at District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, a representative from the Mexican Embassy, speakers from both the legislative and executive branches of government, the press and multiple think tanks. Our debaters listened intently to all the presentations and asked probing questions of the speakers.

Also, in acknowledgement of the unusual pressure currently confronting our youth, we invited several mental health professionals (one from Georgetown University and two from DC Public Schools) to talk openly to our campers and parents about the challenges they face and to introduce them to resources available to help them navigate those challenges.

Additionally, after a successful debut in 2020, we brought the college fair back in 2021. We had reps from the admissions offices and/or the debate coaches from more than 20 schools, large state universities to the Ivy League, liberal arts colleges to HBCUs, from across the country. New this year, before the fair itself, a representative from the provost’s office at Princeton, Matthew’s alma mater, spoke to our juniors and seniors about how to navigate the college admissions process.

Matthew’s birthday (July 28) always falls during camp. In the past, Harris Teeter has generously donated several huge, decorated cakes for the occasion. This year, because of COVID, we had to switch to individually wrapped cupcakes…and Harris Teeter donated many dozens of them, each decorated to match this year’s teal camp t-shirts! Ice pops rounded out the menu, and we arranged to have a GW vaccination van present for students wanting to be vaccinated. Once our campers had their fill of sugar, they had a crazy (virtual and in-person) dance party, capped off with a robust singing of “Happy Birthday” to Matthew. It was a special afternoon that warmed our hearts and made a tough day much easier.

Again, this year, the Institute had a diverse, all-star faculty, of about 40 coaches from across the country. Our staff is, we believe, camp’s secret sauce. To acknowledge their critical role, this year we debuted the Keoni Scott-Reid Outstanding Instructor Award. Long time readers of this letter may remember that Keoni was the first winner of the Matthew Harris Ornstein Award (see below). Before his tragic death in 2019, debate had a transformational impact on Keoni’s life. After his death, MHOMF, with WUDL and Keoni’s family, decided to honor his passion for debating and for teaching and coaching debate by establishing The Keoni Scott-Reid award honoring the coach who most exemplifies Keoni’s values and commitment. The inaugural Keoni Scott-Reid award went to a young woman named Danielle Dupree, a WUDL graduate who had debated against Keoni when they were both in high school. Danielle was recognized for her great teaching skills and deep connection with her students. She spoke beautifully, and completely extemporaneously, at camp’s closing ceremony about Keoni and their mutual love of debate.

The biggest moment at the closing ceremony always comes with announcement of the Matthew Harris Ornstein Award winner. This year, that coveted award, given by Matthew’s high school debate coach, went to Emmanuel Makinde, a senior at Charles Flowers School in Bowie, MD. We are very proud of Emmanuel and can’t wait to watch his future unfold.

Though 2021 was yet another year when we couldn’t physically be together, the closing ceremony, with its speakers, trophies and hundreds of cheering students, family, and friends, made clear that we still had a lot to celebrate! We truly believe that MHOMF, with WUDL and your support, is transforming lives and creating leaders. Hopefully, in the coming year, you will be able to come see for yourself and maybe train to be a judge!

Turning to the second prong of MHOMF’s mission, our mental health work, a large portion of our time in 2021 continued to be devoted to distribution of “Definition of Insanity” (DOI). DOI, as many of you might recall, is the work of two amazingly skilled documentarians, Gabe London (a high school friend of Matthew’s) and Charlie Sadoff, both of Found Object Films ( The movie depicts in real time the remarkable program developed by Miami-Dade County, Florida Judge Steven Leifman and his team who, for over 20 years, have worked tirelessly to decriminalize the treatment of individuals with mental illness.

Our original hope was that after the film premiered in early 2020, we would spend the ensuing months traveling around the country, with the help of a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, for in-person screenings and discussions to implement our vision of using the film as a template for other jurisdictions seeking to duplicate Judge Leifman’s work and realize similar success. Alas, due to COVID, that was not to be.

However, once we were able to change our approach and switch to digital showings followed by real time panels, the movie was shown around the country, hosted by such groups as the National Law Enforcement Museum; the Texas Judicial Mental Health Summit; NAMI Florida; The National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness, Illinois Judicial System; and the City of Rochester, NY. Then, this year, because there was still resistance to large, indoor events, we continued, and even picked up the pace of, our virtual showings.

Indeed, right before I began drafting this letter, I watched our most recent virtual screening (on December 6), sponsored by the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, Norm’s alma mater. The University is in Minneapolis, where a year and a half ago, a horrified country witnessed on TV the murder of George Floyd, which launched a national movement and sent Minnesota on a search for how to fix what is so horrifyingly broken in its state. Following the screening at the Humphrey School, in a “conversation” moderated by Judge Leifman between Norm and Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s Attorney General, an extremely enthusiastic General Ellison pledged to share the movie with the Mayor and Minnesota Judiciary and work with us to plan a meeting and in-person screening this Spring (during baseball season at the Judge’s suggestion) to discuss implementation of the Miami Model in Minnesota. This reaction is typical of how the movie has been received everywhere that we have shown it.

The reaction was similar on October 26 when Judge Leifman spoke at an off the record virtual “policy dinner” organized for a group of House Members by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Following a formidable presentation about his program by Judge Leifman, the federal lawmakers actively participated in a lengthy Q and A, during which numerous Members acknowledged both the problems in their own districts, and the ways Congress could help fix those problems nationwide. Several Members have already followed up to see how they can set up similar screenings, after the first of the year, in the districts they represent.

Other virtual DOI screenings this year were presented to larger, more public audiences. The first was organized by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the country’s largest grassroots mental health advocacy organization, to kick off its “Help, not Handcuffs” series. That program was moderated by NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ken Duckworth. Norm and I spoke, and after the movie, NAMI fielded a panel which, in addition to Judge Leifman, included Sergeant John Blackerby (City of Miami Police Officer), Habsi Kaba (Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator, Miami-Dade County), Cindy Schwartz (Project Director, 11th Circuit Judicial Mental Health Project), and Justin Volpe (Certified Recovery Peer Support Specialist). About 1500 people watched the program in real time and NAMI sent emails to almost 4300 folks with a link to view the program later.

Our next public screening was a collaboration between the Miami Center for Mental Health & Recovery, the Columbia Department of Psychiatry, the Addiction Policy Forum, and MHOMF. The speakers included Congress- woman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart; Actor/Director and DOI narrator Rob Reiner; Judge Leifman; Dr. Stephanie Le Melle (Psychiatrist at Columbia University), Norm and me.

Judge Leifman’s Miami team have been long time partners with an organization in New Orleans called HealingMinds NOLA and after an individual with mental illness was shot and killed by police in neighboring Slidell in early 2021, we brought the documentary to the New Orleans area. In addition to an introduction by Norm and me to an audience of 300, the panel speakers included Judge Leifman; Judge Alan Zaunbrecher from nearby St. Tammany Parish and Nick Richard, the head of NAMI in St. Tammany Parish.

Happily, this summer, in the brief interlude between when vaccinations became available and when Delta took hold, we were able to participate in two in-person events. First, we sponsored members of Judge Leifman’s Miami team to come to DC for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Conference. They presented early on a Sunday morning, the first conference slot of the event, and still drew a crowd of 150 people for a more than 2-hour event that included a showing of DOI and a panel.

The second in-person event took place in August at The Chautauqua Institution in NY state. DOI was made available online in advance of the event and then Norm moderated a panel with Tom Insel, former Director of NIH, and Judge Leifman, to a crowd of over 3000, in an enormous open-air amphitheater, and concurrently to a large virtual audience on zoom. It was the largest event in Chautauqua’s summer season.

During the fall, we continued our virtual programming, reaching many more hundreds of new viewers. One interesting event was a presentation by Judge Leifman and Norm, following a screening of the movie, to the employees of Otsuka, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. The event, complete with gift boxes containing a blanket, hot chocolate, popcorn, and a mug sent to all registrants, was made possible through the Sozosei Foundation, Otsuka’s philanthropic arm. Happily, Sozosei currently focuses its attention, and considerable resources, on decriminalization of mental illness. In the coming week, Judge Leifman, Norm and I will be attending, at Sozosei’s invitation, a Summit in Philadelphia, where there will be further opportunity to promote MHOMF.

Moreover, we have already begun planning for more screenings in 2022.

The need for empathy and compassionate law enforcement, as well as access to appropriate treatment for individuals with mental illness, has never been greater. In the first 11 months of 2021, 123 individuals with mental illness were killed by police shootings (per the Washington Post Fatal Force Database), but the police operate under impossible conditions and wholly unfair and unrealistic expectations. We believe that broad implementation of the teachings of Gabe and Charlie’s magnificent film are a crucial first step in understanding and training law enforcement and in better meeting the needs of individuals with mental illness.

As just one example of screenings already set for 2022, MHOMF was approached by an organization called VinFen ( about showing DOI at its 15th Annual Moving Images Film Festival on March 26. Vinfen is a health and human services nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA that provides comprehensive services to people with mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities, brain injuries, and behavioral health challenges. The festival uses “the power of film to increase awareness, foster important dialogues, and continue the fight against prejudices and discrimination often faced by the people” Vinfen serves.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the increasing criminalization of those with serious mental illnesses is not limited to the U.S. We are really excited that, recently, the governments of one Asian and one South American country have expressed interest in showing DOI in their own countries and in working with Judge Leifman to implement some of his best practices. To this end, we are about to undertake subtitling the film (at the countries’ expense) and meetings have been scheduled to formulate plans, including possible visits to Miami by foreign government officials.

And speaking of trips to Miami, we have all been eagerly awaiting the opening, hopefully this spring, of Judge Leifman’s state of the art, first in the nation, mental health diversion facility that will include 208 beds, with an opportunity for individuals to voluntarily stay for up to a year; a crisis unit; rehabilitation areas; a mini courtroom; a culinary jobs training program; full primary healthcare, dental care and psychiatric services; an indoor basketball gym, and a library. To learn more and/or to donate, which we encourage you to do:

For anyone wondering about our next cinematic venture with Found Object Films, one possibility, if we have the money, is filming the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery’s ribbon-cutting and doing a sequel to DOI focusing on the Center’s work, its successes, and its challenges. [Also of note, this summer we had an intern from Georgetown Day School (Matthew and Daniel’s high school) doing research and evaluating a possible movie about debate camp].

While we had many, many successes this year and last, one of our biggest disappointments in 2020-21 was that we were not able to host in-person LEAP trainings with Dr. Xavier Amador and The Henry Amador Center on Anosognosia. For those of you who are not familiar with LEAP and Dr. Amador, the world’s leading expert on lack of insight in individuals, including many of the homeless, who suffer from serious mental illnesses, see, the Henry Amador Center’s website: or listen to the Dr’s Ted Talk:

We believe that Matthew had anosognosia and that was the major reason he wouldn’t accept treatment for his pain. Our fingers are crossed that we will resume in-person trainings in 2022. Two have already been tentatively scheduled, for March 24-26 in Akron and May 13-15 in Denver.

Our mental health outreach also takes many other forms. As just one example, the work of our Foundation was honored when Norm delivered the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program’s 14th annual Prechter Lecture, given by “distinguished authors, researchers and others whose work focuses on bipolar disorder.” In the two years immediately preceding Norm’s presentation, the speakers were Pete Earley (“No One Cares About Crazy People”) and Kay Redfield Jamison, giants in the field of mental health. The Prechter Research Program is based at the University of Michigan, Judy and Pam’s alma mater, where Norm got his PhD and where Matthew went to Debate Camp. The Program’s goals are “to discover the fundamental biological changes that cause bipolar disorder and develop new interventions to treat and prevent the disease.” Heinz Prechter, who suffered from bipolar disorder his whole life, is credited with popularizing the sunroof in the United States!

Finally, I have been devoting a lot of time the past couple years to two task forces, composed of highly talented jurists, lawyers, psychiatrists and other mental health experts, seeking to evaluate and, as appropriate, propose revisions to, existing, often antiquated, laws regarding the intersection of those with serious mental illnesses and the judicial system. Among the issues being studied is under what circumstances a court should intervene to order treatment of an afflicted individual. Both groups, which are working closely together, hope to publish final reports in 2022. To that end, the National Center for State Courts’ National Judicial Task Force plans to gather participants from around the country in Miami in early March (!) for a meeting that had to be postponed this past fall.

This year, many, many of you, our generous donors, didn’t even wait for Giving Tuesday, or my annual brief (!) description of our work, to contribute to our cause. Some of you responded to the two short videos created by MHOMF’s very own Executive Director extraordinaire, Dr. Jessica Berenson, that we sent out in the days before Thanksgiving. [If you haven’t seen them yet, please take a minute to do so. I think they will put a smile on your face:;]

Others of you who recently made donations without being asked, or who donated at other times during the year, did so because you are now familiar with, and believe in the importance of, our work. And some of you just support us because you know we need you.

As we prepare for yet another holiday season without Matthew, a time which should be filled with joy and good tidings but for us consists of the very darkest of days, it helps to look back on the year just ended and think of all we have been able to accomplish, with your help, in Matthew’s name. Our pain will never diminish, and we will never believe that Matthew died for a reason, but our work does give us the strength and motivation to carry on.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts and we wish you all good fortune of every sort in the new year, Judy (Norm, Danny and Pam)

115 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Newsweek Articles about Debate Camp

You can find the two articles that Newsweek's Lauren Giella wrote about Debate Camp here: Debate Camp attracts some of the 'smartest people in DC.'


bottom of page