Patty Duke Talk Draws Crowd
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Actress and brain illness advocate Patty Duke was in town last weekend as part of the first-ever Pathway to Awareness Weekend.
At least 900 people participated in Saturday's and Sunday's events, sponsored by the Nation-al Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Moore County.
Events also included a community awareness walk, a display of irises to honor people with brain illnesses, and a balloon release.
Duke's keynote address on Saturday night at Sandhills Community College -- part of the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series -- proved to be the main event.
"When you've turned 150 people away from the overflow room, you know you have a hit," said event Co-chairwoman Ellen Airs.
Duke, who is perhaps best known for her Academy award-winning role as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," is bipolar. She has authored two books about her struggles with the illness.
"Everybody from the whole weekend just realized how warm and friendly and kind she is," Airs said. "There were so many questions from the audience about their personal illness. She was most compassionate and empathetic with her answers."
Duke was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 35, after her second divorce. She said she had always known she had a problem, but she could never pinpoint it.
Once she began medication, Duke said her life became manageable again.
"Her mind wasn't racing any longer," Airs said. "With manic depression, you have your highs and your lows. But she'll never go through what she did before."
At Sunday afternoon's signing, Duke's books on mental illness sold out before everyone in line had a chance to purchase a copy. Organizers had to make photocopied covers for Duke to sign.
"She went and she made sure she signed every single person who stood in line," said event Co-chairwoman Marianne Kernan. "There were more stories that people said to her: 'You have given me hope.'"
But Sunday's other events also drew crowds.
NAMI members revealed a commemorative display of irises -- the group's symbol of hope and courage -- that recreates artist Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises." Van Gogh painted the work while he was institutionalized for brain illness.
About 350 walkers showed up for the "Pathway of Awareness" walk in the park area near Pinehurst Village Hall. Fifteen teams and numerous individual walkers gathered pledges and participated in the walk.
"That was fantastic," Kernan said. "It was much more than we expected."
The weekend closed with a release of helium balloons tagged with names of those affected by brain illnesses. Called "candles in the sky," the balloons took the place of the traditional candlelight vigil NAMI members and supporters have held in the first weekend of October for years.
NAMI leaders said the local business sponsors -- which included the village of Pinehurst, the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series, FirstHealth of the Carolinas, BB&T, Bill Smith Ford and The Pilot -- helped cover the costs of the entire weekend. They don't know yet how much money was raised.
"We haven't finished tallying the rest of the money, but it will go to mental health awareness and mental health issues," Airs said. "Having paid Duke was expensive, but it was well worth it."
The point of the weekend, leaders said, was to eliminate the stigmas that surround brain disorders and to raise awareness about NAMI of Moore County.
"What really got me was that NAMI of Moore County has been in this area for 15 years, but no one knew what it stood for, what it did," Kernan said. "The sad part is, the professional community will refer families to us, but they don't even know what it is."
The weekend helped change that, she said.
"I think people found out that people can have a brain illness or brain disorder that look like you and me," she said.
The Awareness weekend will become an annual event for NAMI of Moore County, organizers said, featuring a big-name speaker and walk.
"The community support was so overwhelming," Airs said. "Some people were skeptical, and instead it turned out to be just a wonderful success."
Katherine Evans is an intern from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at 693-2480 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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