December 12, 2022
Dear Family and Friends,
Many of you know that, in lieu of glossy brochures, or annual reports with graphs, each December, I write you a letter reviewing our work over the past year and sharing our plans for the year ahead. It’s a complex and emotional “taking stock,” coming at the start of a holiday season that, for our family, marks the beginning of the difficult weeks leading up to the anniversary of Matthew’s death on January 3. But, after my drafting, editing, and the editing of my edits, I am always left with an overriding sense that, together, we have done Matthew proud. This year is no exception. Hopefully, the paragraphs (ok, many pages) which follow will lead you to agree that, with your generous support, MHOMF’s two-pronged mission is being faithfully executed.
That said, I know this is a busy season for everyone. So, If you don’t have the time to read my lengthy treatise, please just watch this three-minute VIDEO. It will give you at least some sense of one aspect of our work and I guarantee it will put a smile on your face!
MENTAL ILLNESS. “Our moment is NOW!” That is the phrase I have used hundreds, if not thousands, of times this year, in large presentations, in small conferences, on zooms, and in private conversations. It’s not an empty slogan; it’s a statement of fact, and an example of that most endangered species: a fact with which everyone, regardless of political affiliation, seems to agree.
As anyone who follows the news knows (and that is all of you), increasingly over the past couple years, and especially in 2022, there has been a huge rise nationally in reported cases of mental illness in every demographic, especially among our young people. Suicides among young adults, teens and even children have risen at stunning rates; universities and secondary schools have faced previously unimagined challenges; the number of unhoused and unhelped, so many of whom suffer from serious mental illnesses (SMI), is increasing with alarming speed. Some people live in fear, whether rational or not, of being pushed in front of a subway, just as the train is approaching. Norm and I get 3-4 calls a month from people searching desperately, generally in vain, for a way to help a loved one.
Just a couple days ago, I read an ARTICLE in the Sacramento Bee. It’s short and I beg you to read it. The article says it all with respect to the issues on which MHOMF works. Films, personal stories, books, or the like, paint in vivid colors, far more starkly than I can in a letter, a picture of the mental health crisis we face as a nation. Therefore, we plan in 2023 to create a monthly virtual gathering with a specific topic growing out of a news story, a compelling book, etc., to grow awareness, stimulate discussion and promote advocacy. The time has come to build a militia, armed only with our voices, to fight for mental health.
This escalating crisis has not gone unnoticed and many serious, but too often siloed, efforts are in the works to address one or another aspect of our country’s broken system of care for the seriously mentally ill. One of those efforts, I believe, holds special promise and is key to transformative change. In March 2020, the Conference of [state] Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators established the “National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness,” with a charge “to assist state courts in their efforts to more effectively respond to the needs of court-involved individuals with serious mental illness.” As a measure of the perceived urgency of the problem, it was only the third time in their 75-year history that the Conferences have taken such an action.
I was honored to be asked to serve on the 65-member Task Force, comprised of many of the nation’s leading jurists, psychiatrists, and lawyers at the forefront of efforts to reform our nation's response to SMI. The Task Force was divided into several working groups. My group assessed, and suggested improvements to, the way cases involving adults with SMI are generally treated on the civil side of the judicial system…the side that so badly failed us when we sought court-ordered/potentially lifesaving help for Matthew.
The Task Force toiled for more than two years, convening virtually at least once a month, and even meeting in person for several days in Miami. In between calls and meetings, we exchanged draft proposals, model language, cutting edge research and outside expert opinion. The result was a 59-page REPORT, released at a press conference in October. It is a remarkable roadmap for future action and MHOMF plans to be at the table as the document sparks a dialogue and, hopefully, results in some much needed nationwide changes.
Sometimes intertwined with my work on the Task Force, MHOMF continued this year to plan, promote, respond to requests for, and participate in, both virtual and, finally, in-person, screenings of THE DEFINITION OF INSANITY. DOI, as you may recall, is the work of two amazing documentarians, Matthew’s friend Gabe London and Charlie Sadoff, both of Found Object Films. The movie depicts in real time the remarkable “Miami Model,” developed by Judge Steven Leifman and his team who, for over 22 years, have worked tirelessly to decriminalize mental illness. As a result of my work on the Judicial Task Force, we were asked to show the movie and participate in panels at three regional meetings of the National Center for State Courts: in Austin on April 21; in Burlington on May 25; and in Brooklyn on June 22.
Our vision had originally been that after DOI premiered at the Miami Film Festival in March 2020, and was broadcast on PBS that April, we would spend the ensuing months traveling around the country, with the help of a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, promoting the movie as a template for other jurisdictions seeking to emulate Judge Leifman’s work. Alas, due to COVID, that was not to be. So, in 2021, we regrouped and completed numerous virtual showings. Then, happily, in the latter half of this year, we were finally able to return to some other in-person programs, in addition to the three for the Conference of Chief Justices, while we continued also to screen the film virtually.
We were honored that DOI was selected to be shown in March at the Vinfen film festival. Vinfen is a national organization which focuses on supporting and empowering people with disabilities.
On July 15, MHOMF partnered with Kaiser Permanente to circulate the film and host a national forum entitled “From Tragedy to Transformation: Reforming Criminal Justice, Policy, and the Mental Health System.” The forum was the initial step in development of a broader partnership between MHOMF and Kaiser that will include in-person forums on the West Coast next year.
Working with the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, Norm convened a small private group of stakeholders, including judges, lawmakers, police chiefs, and mental health advocates from around the state, along with Judge Leifman and Dan Gillison, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), for an in-person, off the record meeting to discuss the Miami Model, best practices and what Minneapolis and Minnesota, the city/state in which George Floyd was killed, can/should do to reform their badly broken system of care for those with SMI. This private meeting in August was followed by a public panel and individual Q&As with the new Minneapolis Chief of Public Safety, and with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Next steps were agreed upon, including a commitment to introduce needed bill(s) in the Minnesota legislature.
In September, MHOMF co-hosted a hybrid in-person and virtual event at American University with the University’s School of Public Affairs and Friendship Place (an organization dedicated to fighting homelessness in DC). The evening began with a lovely reception provided by Friendship Place, followed by a DOI screening and panel discussion moderated by Preeti Menon of the School of Public Affairs. Panelists (The Honorable Craig Iscoe, Associate Judge, DC Superior Court; Lisa Dailey, Executive Director, Treatment Advocacy Center; Amber Harding, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Washington Legal Clinic; and Jean-Michel Giraud, Executive Director, Friendship Place) discussed the overlap of mental illness, the criminal justice system and homelessness, followed by a lively Q & A. See, THE PANEL.
Also in 2022, MHOMF continued to collaborate with NAMI. In April, Norm was a keynote speaker for a NAMI Justice Diversion Task Force program entitled, “Crisis Conversations; A Problem-Solving Convening” and we were invited by NAMI New York State to be part of its annual convention last month. The first day of the conference featured a criminal justice track led by Don Kamin, a psychologist, who was in the audience in a 2020 DOI screening in Rochester, and ended with people from different tracks across the conference coming together to watch DOI and listen to a panel which included various regional experts.
We were also proud to contribute to the recently published, first-ever NAMI guide to navigating mental illness. You Are Not Alone, by Dr. Ken Duckworth, NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer, is full of practical information from both experts and those with lived experience. If your life and/or your work intersects with the terrifying world of SMI, You Are Not Alone does a breathtakingly comprehensive job of providing straightforward answers to all your questions, even the ones you didn’t yet know you had.
Norm and I were honored to speak with Dr. Duckworth while he was working on his book and, in the hope of sparing even one person a small bit of our family’s pain, we permitted him to share information about Matthew’s illness…information that we desperately wish someone had shared with us. We were also honored to be on a panel with Dr. Duckworth about the book at the National Press Club in October. We can’t adequately praise Dr. Duckworth’s gargantuan undertaking. Thank you, Ken! You are, quite literally, saving lives.
And occasionally, we appear on podcasts regarding mental illness, such as in June, when Norm and I both spoke with Randye Kaye, Mindy Greiling and Miriam Feldman about the decriminalization of mental illness on their podcast entitled, “Schizophrenia: Three Moms in the Trenches.”
In addition to these formal programs, we have been in contact this year with, and/or received requests for DOI screenings on an almost weekly basis from, state and municipal judges, public defenders, prosecutors, clinicians, and private citizens from Ohio; Indiana; New York; Massachusetts; North Carolina; Washington, DC; Oregon; Arizona; California; and Louisiana and the movie has even attracted attention in South Korea and in Ecuador!
It’s been almost three years since the premiere of The Definition of Insanity. The bad news is that the film remains as relevant as ever. The good news is that, thanks to your generous support, DOI’s message continues to light the way.
One particularly gratifying and potentially transformative example of this was a November 16th visit to Miami/Dade, which we were able to facilitate, by a high-level delegation from the US Department of Justice. That delegation included Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Director Karhlton F. Moore of the Bureau of Justice Assistance. According to a DOJ press release: The purpose of the visit was “to discuss responses to mental health issues in the justice system.”
The day after the trip, Associate General Gupta delivered remarks at the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section’s Awards Luncheon. I wish I could hold your rapt attention while I quoted Ms. Gupta’s speech in its entirety, but you can read it here: SPEECH. Suffice it to say, the substance of her remarks began: “Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to travel to Miami-Dade County, where a groundbreaking initiative is challenging the more typical criminal justice approach to people with behavioral health disorders, and initiatives like that in Miami-Dade, involving all stakeholders, beg us to be more creative and data-driven to save lives, taxpayer dollars and precious law enforcement resources for fighting violent crime.” And she continued in that vein. We hope this is only the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with the US DOJ.
In May, we were contacted by a high school junior from California whose teacher had shown DOI in his class. As a result, the young man decided to make the Miami Model the subject of a special project with a couple of his peers. He was reaching out to ask if we would grant him an interview about the film and contact Judge Leifman to see if he would also participate in the interview. The Judge and I spent over an hour on the phone with the young man and two fellow students. Not only was our talk itself delightful, but the notion that our movie, and Judge Leifman’s work, was being shared with young people just starting to find a lens through which to view the world was nothing short of exhilarating.
At the end of DOI, Judge Leifman introduces us to the facility that he is building with his team in Miami. This one-stop-shop, first-in-the-nation facility to provide comprehensive wraparound services and so much more under one roof, is scheduled to open sometime this spring. We plan to send our documentarians back to Miami to film the grand opening of the facility and follow the stories that unfold within its walls. It is our hope that, in a couple of years, those stories will form a sequel to The Definition of Insanity and, like DOI, will serve as a roadmap for others.
But not everything MHOMF did in the mental health space this year directly related to DOI or to Judge Leifman. For example, Friday the 13th of May was anything but unlucky for the 100 or so folks who attended a special LEAP training in Denver with Dr. Xavier Amador, Dr. Jim Fixx, Gabriela Canedo and The Henry Amador Center on Anosognosia. Not only was the time we spent together that weekend special because it marked a return to in-person LEAP trainings, but also because of our co-sponsors Denver University, School of Social Work; Spice of Life Catering; WellPower; Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council; and Lindsay Rauch (the younger sister in Bob Kolker’s remarkable book Hidden Valley Road, the true story of the Rauch family, who lived in Colorado in the 50’s and 60’s, had twelve children, ten of them boys, six of whom had schizophrenia).
If you are not familiar with LEAP and Dr. Amador, the world’s leading expert on lack of insight (anosognosia) in individuals with SMI, including many of the unhoused, listen to HIS TED TALK or visit THE HENRY AMADOR CENTER. We believe that anosognosia caused Matthew to reject treatment. We further believe that recent advances in our understanding of the brain, including of anosognosia, mandate that state laws be updated to enable earlier civil court ordered treatment in appropriate, limited circumstances.
DEBATE! DEBATE! DEBATE!! All year, MHOMF works in the deep, dark trenches of mental illness, where reason to believe in a better future is often hard to find, but then our hope is renewed each summer when, for three exhilarating, albeit exhausting, weeks, we get to celebrate the healthy, happy, brilliant, funny, kind, successful young man, full of hope, promise and big dreams, who was Matthew before his illness.
I wish you could have heard the joyous laughter that rang through the halls of BASIS Charter School in downtown DC as the entire Matthew Harris Ornstein Summer Debate Institute, at least 200 strong (campers, lab leaders, and other staff), returned in person in July for three whole weeks for the first time since 2019. Together with the Washington Urban Debate League (WUDL), its extraordinary leader David Trigaux and his team, we annually provide an experience (often described by parents, guardians, and campers themselves, as nothing short of life-altering) for rising 6th-12th graders from primarily Title 1 public and charter schools across DC, Prince George’s, and Montgomery Counties.
This year, the 8th annual Matthew Harris Ornstein Summer Debate Institute was notable not only because we were finally in person again, but also for several new initiatives we implemented as we constantly aim to enhance the camaraderie and learning experience of the Summer Institute. For example, at the opening assembly, we announced creation of the “117 Society” to recognize those students and staff who had already attended camp at least two previous times. To raucous cheers, recipients gathered at the front of the room for their orange and black identifying buttons, which bestowed on them a special obligation to mentor the less experienced. Everyone proudly displayed their buttons all during camp and took seriously their new duties.
117 was Matthew’s lucky number. Ever since he was little, he took great pleasure in spotting 117s, staying in hotel rooms numbered 117, incorporating 117 into his writing, and generally choosing 117 any time he got to pick a number. After his death, Matthew’s friends and cousins spontaneously started sending us pictures of their 117 sightings and often wrote to us of dreams in which the number appeared. Some have actually (almost) convinced us that Matthew communicates through his lucky number and, in that way, assures us that he is ok. Perhaps, but at a minimum, it’s wonderful to know that so many continue to hold our Matthew in their thoughts. Please keep those sightings coming.
We are especially proud of a new partnership forged with the Washington Post which, for the first time, provided our campers with a free digital subscription to our “local” newspaper. The difficulty of accessing research materials, so many of which are behind paywalls, is a source of frustration especially to our more seasoned debaters and puts them at a tangible disadvantage when compared to better financed, non-urban debate league teams. This partnership was a first step in our commitment to breaking down barriers in information access.
As many of you know, the debate topic which forms the basis for most of our work at camp, is decided nationally, by a complex process, well in advance of the year during which the topic will be in effect. That topic is the same for all policy debaters across the country, regardless of the nature of the leagues to which they belong. We are always amazed by the uncanny prescience with which the national topic is selected and this year’s topic, US Security Policy Towards NATO, is no exception!
One of the great advantages to being in the nation’s capital is the opportunity it affords us to call upon world-class experts on virtually any policy issue, many of whom – as it turns out - were themselves debaters and credit their debate experience for the success they have had later in life. No matter their rank, they are always eager to answer the call when given the chance to pay it forward.
From the first week of varsity camp, when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan came (fresh off Air Force One from a trip with President Biden), to the 15-20 other speakers, including Ivo Daalder, President Obama’s Ambassador to NATO, and Julianne Smith, our current NATO Ambassador, our kids attentively listened to, questioned, sparred with, and held their own in meetings with some of the country’s foremost experts. In fact, we heard many times from high level officials that our students posed better questions than they got asked in official briefings!
Matthew would have loved the discussions and the tough questions our campers asked and I could have closed my eyes and been certain that it was Matthew himself who asked Jake Sullivan whether he got to keep the frequent flyer points from all the trips he took on Air Force One during his career!
The core of the Summer Debate Institute’s curriculum, however, is designed to teach our novice debaters HOW to debate, to instill in them a love of debate, to help our junior varsity and varsity debaters hone their skills and to teach everyone about the topic for the upcoming year’s competitions. Debate camp this year was comprised of about 11 groups (labs), with 10-15 people and 2 staff members in each. Labs are the home base for students all during camp. Lab exercises include speech practice, topic specific instruction, learning the ins and outs of debate and yes, playing games and having fun. Camp is intense, and our students work hard, but they also have a great time and perhaps what would have made Matthew happiest was watching the inter-school friendships that were forged this summer.
Again this year, we hosted our ever-popular college fair, with representatives from 23 schools making presentations and interacting virtually with almost 50 of our students, who participated enthusiastically, even after a full 8-hour day of camp! As always, we got great feedback from the college representatives. The future is especially bright for all these kids! Consider some of the schools where camp alumni started college this Fall: University of Rochester, American University, University of Maryland, Penn, THREE at Yale, University of Chicago, NYU, Trinity (Dublin) and Temple!
As we have done in recent years, we again built some time into our Institute to focus on mental health and well-being. This year, the students worked on a guided art project and interacted with a volunteer child and adolescent psychiatrist from Georgetown University.
We always try to plan a special outing during camp, but because of Covid, it had been a few years since our last field trip (to a Nationals baseball game). We certainly made up for it this year, though, spending an amazing Saturday morning at the newly opened Planet Word in downtown DC. Our campers and their families had exclusive access to the interactive museum exhibits celebrating language and the spoken and written word and got to participate in an engaging class taught by museum staff. At the end of the morning, everyone was treated to some special remarks by Ann Friedman, the museum’s visionary founder and CEO, and enjoyed a catered lunch in a beautiful private room, a gift from Ann and her husband (author and columnist Tom Friedman).
And it would not have been debate camp without a celebration of Matthew’s birthday on July 28. This year, Jeni’s (President Biden’s Favorite!) donated numerous huge containers of ice cream. Norm and I, assisted by staff and our documentarians, scooped, scooped, and scooped some more. The hole in our hearts was filled with the exhilarating sound of thunderous rounds of “happy birthday, Matthew” and the sight of broadly smiling (albeit smudged) faces. For the record, the hands down favorite flavor was gooey butter cake!
The Summer Institute always concludes with a tournament in which the entire camp participates. It is an enormous undertaking involving two locations, transporting students from one of those locations to the other, feeding everyone snacks and two nutritious meals (with the help this year of a generous donation from Shake Shack) and scores of helpers, including about 17 volunteer judges.
Following this year's tournament, everyone came together for a reception (the amazing food for which was donated by our local Harris Teeter), and the seats in the auditorium at Trinity Washington University began to fill with hundreds of our campers, their families, and friends. The air was electric…this was another in-person tradition that had been suspended in recent years because of COVID. I can’t begin to describe how the excitement in the room began to grow when the Closing Ceremony finally commenced, and then how that excitement boiled over, as the audience realized that the inspirational opening remarks being delivered over video were from the new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Justice Jackson was herself a high school debater and has often publicly credited debate for much of her success. When Norm reached out to her shortly after she was appointed to the High Court, it took her only about 5 minutes to get a message back accepting his invitation to speak. And for Norm and me, the moment was made even more special knowing that the Justice served on the Board of Georgetown Day School, where Matthew developed his own passion for debate. Justice Jackson’s remarks, followed by a standing ovation of several hundred people, from grandparents to baby siblings, many of whom had tears streaming down their faces, is a moment I will never forget.
The energy ignited by Justice Jackson continued to burn throughout the rest of the awards ceremony, from presentation of trophies to the winning tournament teams and individual speakers through awarding of the special prizes, starting with the award for outstanding coach. We couldn’t have debate camp without our staff. Again this year, the Institute had a diverse, all-star faculty of about 20 coaches from across the country. They, we believe, are the camp's secret sauce.
To acknowledge the critical role of our coaches, last year we established the Keoni Scott-Reid Outstanding Instructor Award. Keoni was the first winner, in 2015, of the Matthew Harris Ornstein Prize (see below). Before his tragic death in 2019 at the age of just 21, debate had already transformed Keoni’s life. After his death, MHOMF decided to honor Keoni’s passion for debating and for teaching debate by establishing an award in Keoni's name that would honor, with a significant cash bonus, the coach who most exemplified Keoni’s values.
The second annual Keoni Scott-Reid Award was presented this year to Alexa Figueroa, who spoke movingly about the impact Keoni had on her in WUDL and as a camper when she was first learning to debate, through when she joined us as a coach. We are fortunate to have many talented camp alumni like Alexa who return as staff and serve as mentors to the next generation.
As the closing ceremony nears an end and ALMOST all the awards have been given out, a wave of palpable tension always starts to build as everyone awaits announcement of the Matthew Harris Ornstein Prize winner, awarded to that camper who most exemplifies Matthew’s passion, intelligence, kindness, humor, and diligence.
This year, that announcement was proceeded by a moving tribute from Harold Gutmann, one of Matthew’s dearest childhood friends, in town from San Francisco (his wife Laura provided invaluable help during the reception before the awards ceremony). HAROLD'S REMARKS, which had us laughing through our tears, are worth a read for, if nothing more, Harold’s story of how Matthew dealt with a large debt he had incurred resulting from a long run of lost wagers.
Then, Jim Gentile, Matthew’s high school debate coach, with the help of two prior Matthew Prize winners (both on staff this summer, Dennis Martinez and Emmanuel Makinde), announced this year’s winner: Liv Birnstad, a senior at Capital City Charter School in DC. Liv has been a long-time participant in WUDL and debate camp. We are very proud of her and can’t wait to see where she goes next. I do know this: she took all her graduation photos while tightly clutching her award!
It was truly a remarkable day, followed by our traditional dinner for staff and volunteers…also for the first time in three years. For those of you thinking “I wish I could have been there,” we have one last surprise. Our DOI documentarians WERE there, taking pictures and capturing the joy and the emotion. Gabe and Charlie have been exploring production of a movie on urban debate. To that end, they have already filmed about 16 days: at camp and with WUDL, capturing our students at work and at play, at home, in school and at competitions. Next step, hopefully in January, will be production of a trailer, so that the appetite for a full-fledged film can be gauged.
The incredible success and widespread influence of The Definition of Insanity has convinced us that there is nothing like the power of film to tell a story, teach a lesson, and encourage action. It has been widely acknowledged that our students, our teachers and our schools are in crisis, especially since the pandemic. The experience of students and coaches who have engaged in urban debate in recent years, however, runs completely counter to this trend in education.
Norm and I have often explained that we produced DOI to serve as a template for other jurisdictions seeking to emulate the incredible success of Judge Leifman in decriminalizing mental illness. Now, we want to sprinkle the same kind of faerie dust across the land and show, through the power of film, what can be accomplished by believing in our students and giving them the tools to realize their dreams. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, we invite you to get involved with debate. WUDL and MHOMF are always looking for volunteers!
Finally, I want to acknowledge the incredible work of our mini but mighty board (which, in addition to Norm and me, consists of our son Daniel and my sister Dr. Pamela Harris); our Executive Director, Dr. Jessica Berenson (in her third year); Elena Fialkoff, MHOMF’s new Program Assistant; Andrew Rothenberg, our financial manager at Morgan Stanley; and Robert Tempchin, our CPA at Rubino. Thank you.
I can’t begin to enumerate all that Jess does 622 days a year to keep us up and running. The knowledge, compassion, dedication, and enthusiasm she brings to her calling, is beyond anything I can put into words. And now, Jess has also been making time to train Elena, the newest member of our “family.” Elena is a graduate of Towson University and comes to us after working for a University of Pittsburgh law professor and before that, with a well-known local documentarian. Elena is a fellow dog lover and we feel lucky to have “found” her on a neighborhood listserv after a long national search!
Obviously, it takes a lot of money to accomplish all that we have achieved, and would still like to achieve, and it is hard adequately to express how grateful we are for your donations. So many of you contribute to Matthew’s Foundation throughout the year, without us even asking for your support. Others wait until you've read this report to decide whether you believe we have deployed your past donations wisely before deciding whether to give again. And many of you are only starting to learn about MHOMF. We hope you will join us on our journey. Our moment is NOW! PLEASE DONATE HERE!
A lot of organizations, in asking for financial support, dangle “matches” as incentives for new or increased contributions. We do not, but I believe that you do have the right to know that about 75% of our operating funds are donated by our siblings, other family members, Norm and me. I know you will all give what you can and what you feel our work merits. That, coupled with your encouragement, your volunteer efforts, and your emotional support are more that we could ever have hoped for when we first established MHOMF seven and a half years ago.
From the beginning, I have said that I long for the time when you donate to MHOMF because you believe in our mission and how we execute on it and not just out of a shared sense of grief for the loss of our beloved son. I meant that when I first said it and I mean it now, but remembering Matthew, introducing him to others who would otherwise never have the privilege of knowing him, building his legacy and continuing his work for those less fortunate than he was, when all is said and done, is why we do what we do, and it is the chicken soup for our souls.