Who We Are
NAMI Kent County is the local affiliate of NAMI. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Founded in 1979 by several families around a kitchen table, NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
NAMI Kent County is the grassroots part of that organization and it’s here to directly help the Kent County community. We offer support, education, and resources. As part of that work, we raise awareness and fight stigma.
NAMI of Kent County is a nonprofit organization that provides support, education, and advocacy throughout the Kent County area on behalf of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
What We Do
SUPPORT – We facilitate support groups for people with a mental illness and those that live in support of someone with a mental illness.
EDUCATION – We offer Family to Family classes and we’re working to offer additional NAMI signature programs soon. Watch for announcements of new signature programs offered in Kent County here and on Facebook.
RESOURCES – We are connected to resources here in Kent County and we can help you discover and reach those resources. In addition, we have a general meeting on the second Tuesday of every month with a speaker that will educate you. We also have a library with materials available to borrow that we have gathered over the years.
ADVOCACY – Together, we will work to let people know that mental illness is a problem that needs to be talked about. Research on mental illness lags far behind research on other conditions. We need to work with NAMI at the national level to make sure that there is more research on the various brain disorders.
RECOVERY – Yes, recovery is possible. Many of our members and others with a mental illness diagnosis live in recovery. With support, education, and resources, people diagnosed with a mental illness can and do take charge of their lives and find ways to live a full, productive life.
Our President is Pam Squire. Pam has been on the board for well over 10 years. During that time, she has been trained to lead Family to Family classes and she was involved in bringing a NAMIWalks walk to Grand Rapids. “It was a lonely and frustrating struggle trying to help my son with his illness. When we discovered NAMI and became members, we found others who understood what we were going through, because they’ve been there. The struggle could still be frustrating, but now we had a community and additional resources.”
Our Treasurer is Natalie Wagner. She serves as the Director of Student Life at Davenport University and has worked in higher education for approximately 20 years, witnessing the importance of increasing mental health awareness and resources for college students. She has been involved with the NAMIWalks event in Grand Rapids for three years and has served on the board since 2018.
Our Secretary is Carol. She has been a member of NAMI for over 15 years. She has been involved in the Family Support Group from day one. She assisted our founder, Betty Walker with chairing many of the meetings, and upon taking support group training, she helps lead that group to this day. Carol has been on the board for 12 years as the Recording Secretary.
Our Membership Chair is Steve Squire. Steve has been with NAMI Kent County since 2005. He joined the board of directors of NAMI Kent County a year later. Around 2007, Steve became membership coordinator.
Neil Shepard, PhD is a faculty member in the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at Davenport University. His research interests include the destigmatization of disability and mental illness. He became involved with NAMI through participation in the 2016 NAMI Walk.
Steve Bergman is a Family Practice Physician who left private practice after 25 years and transitioned into providing medical care in the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is co-chairman of the Education Committee and facilitates classes in a number of NAMI signature programs. When our family was dramatically affected by mental illness, we did not know where to turn. NAMI's Family-2-Family class was instrumental in our learning and healing process. A primary goal is to coordinate cooperation among the many mental health resources available in our area.
Amy Zabel moved to Michigan from Georgia, where she was active in a variety of NAMI programs and served on the local board in her hometown of Columbus. She has been a member of NAMI for 11 years. Amy is a retired educator and her NAMI passions include Connection and Ending the Silence. She is enjoying retirement in Traverse City with her husband, Tim, and continues to provide peer support on a regular basis at the local and state levels.
Chloe Symon is a native of Grand Rapids and has been volunteering for mental health causes for years. She volunteered over 100 hours in the community while serving as Miss Greater Grand Rapids 2016 with her personal platform of mental health awareness. Currently she is a Respiratory Therapist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Chloe is a champion for advocating for mental health issues because her brother battled mental illness and passed away in 2017.
Kay has been an active board member since 2015. During that time she participated in establishing a lending library, creating a quarterly newsletter, designing an informational NAMI postcard and distributing it to public places, initiating the use of Twitter for marketing, and attending state NAMI conferences.
Kay joined NAMI to fulfill her desire to be an advocate for the mentally ill. She also serves on the board of the OCD Foundation of Michigan located in Livonia, MI.
Karen Vander Laan
Karen J. Vander Laan learned of NAMI through participating in a Family-to-Family class in Fall 2018. As an experienced nurse, she is a passionate advocate for interprofessional, evidence-based practices that improve outcomes for people and their family members. Karen joined NAMI in 2019 and is currently serving on the NAMI Kent County board.
Thomas Sprague is an almost-retired university professor, who has been a member of NAMI for three years. Tom served on the faculties of Western Michigan University, Alma College, Cornerstone University, and Grand Rapids Community College. Tom and his wife Carol facilitate NAMI Connection and Family-to-Family classes. “People suffering from a mental illness and their families often feel isolated, disoriented, even abandoned. There is nothing easy about managing a mental illness, but the people of NAMI-Kent are ready to share the challenges and celebrate victories together. None of us has to do this alone."
In Recognition of John and Betty Walker
John and Betty Walker first learned that their older daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness in 1981. This began their journey navigating resources and treatments in helping their daughter live with a mental illness. Since then, their daughter has been hospitalized many times. Trying to help her get the best help and treatment possible was truly a daunting task. There are so many unknowns and the stigma associated with mental illness means few people want to talk about it. This makes finding resources even more difficult. After their daughter had been hospitalized several times, her psychiatrist suggested to John and Betty that they reach out to NAMI to find support for themselves.
The Walkers had just moved to St. Louis so Betty called the number for NAMI of St. Louis and talked to the man who answered the phone. Finally, there was someone she could talk to and who understood what they were going through! They realized that they were not alone after all! They became involved with that NAMI affiliate and remained involved until they moved to Grand Rapids in 1987. Once in Grand Rapids, they found NAMI Kent County, which at that time was known as AMI-SHARE or The Alliance on Mental Illness and the Self Help Association for Relatives’ Enlightenment. Not long after that, they joined the board.
After 10 years on the board, Betty was elected President and she served for 6 years. During her tenure, AMI-SHARE became NAMI of Kent County. In 1998, Betty was trained, along with Linda Hunt and Ethel Bucek, in the Family in Action (FIA) class, sponsored by the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Michigan (AMIM). The three of them taught several of those classes to Kent County community members. Meanwhile, John continued to serve on the board of NAMI of Kent County and then he also joined the board of Network 180, the Kent County community mental health agency. While serving as President, Betty worked with a fellow member, Carol Siegel, to start a newsletter. John and Betty wrote countless articles in the quarterly newsletter. In 2000, John received the Madden Service Award. This was an award presented at the Michigan Association Community Mental Health Board Conference for making an outstanding contribution to the community mental health system.
Even though Betty stepped down as President in 2002, she and John continued to serve on the board with Betty serving as Corresponding Secretary. John was elected to serve as President in 2010; a post he held for just a couple of years. During all this time, John and Betty attended almost every board meeting. They became involved in the mental health community, getting to know the people who provide the resources available to people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or those who live in support of someone with a mental illness diagnosis. They coordinated speakers for the monthly NAMI Kent County general meetings. Betty helped run the support group on the third Tuesday of every month. Betty also worked with Karen Rozelle to bring the first Family to Family class to Kent County beginning March 1, 2012. That class continues to be taught today. John and Betty were the ones who answered the phone when people called wanting to know what NAMI is. They regularly attended NAMI Michigan conferences and, in 1999, they attended their first NAMI national convention which was held in Chicago that year. They found the convention so inspiring and helpful; they attended several more in places such as Nashville, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Washington DC three or four times, covering most of their expenses.
Despite failing health, John and Betty continued to attend board meetings. Betty was useful in reminding the board of policies and procedures. If we needed to know some historical fact about NAMI Kent County, we could count on Betty to know the answer. If one of us younger board members couldn’t remember the name of a person who could provide a valuable resource for our members, Betty would remember that name.
With all that they have done since they first became involved in this organization, it is easy to see that John and Betty have been integral to the heart and soul of NAMI Kent County. NAMI Kent County is grateful for the hard work, dedication, and love that John and Betty Walker gave to this organization and its members for over 30 years. They have touched so many lives over those years, letting so many know that they are not alone.