Access Living celebrates the life and contributions of Helen Morley

Helen Morley (left) with Marcia Rothenberg (center) and Tom Wilson (Right).
Curtis Harris (second from the right with the microphone) is the first recipient of the Helen Morley Award.
This year, with the closing of clinics around Chicago, issues of mental health have taken center stage. However, Helen Morley played a central role in the fight for the rights of those struggling with mental illness long before 2012. Seventeen years ago, Helen sought help from Access Living to deal with the hostile climate of her living situation in Chicago Housing Authority housing. She was labeled a trouble-maker due to the fact

that she asked for maintenance and upkeep on her apartment. All of the things she asked for were reasonable accommodations under the law. She eventually won her right to those accommodations. As a result of her persistent attitude toward disability advocacy, Beto Barrera, the current Manager of Community Organizing at Access Living, recognized her strength and resolve for the issue, and put her to work going to political rallies and lobbying officials throughout the city of Chicago.

Helen soon emerged as a key figure both within the Access Living community and the mental health movement. Known for her colorful headscarves and unassuming appearance, it was easy to label Helen as wholesome and benign. However, on the inside, she was full of ardent passion for a cause she knew affected so many more than just herself. “Helen needed no training in how to be genuine,” said Barrera. “She naturally wanted to survive and fight for the rights of those with mental illnesses.”

Helen was never afraid to proclaim publically the toll closing mental health facilities took on those who required their services. This year, in a famous encounter with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Helen approached the mayor in the Chicago History Museum at the 175th anniversary celebration of the city. She charged forward shouting, “You’re killing us,” over and over in response to the mayor’s movements toward closing several mental health clinics. She never backed down. Instead of addressing the situation, the mayor turned and left the event. Helen was also a constant presence at sit-in and sleep over protests. When others tired or got bored, she was relentless, sitting as long as it took to get her point across.

On June 6, the community was saddened to learn that Helen passed away. In the days after her death, Barrera and several colleagues realized that action needed to be taken to officially recognize Helen’s efforts over the years. First they proposed the idea of bestowing her with an award; however, this wasn’t enough. Instead, they chose to create an award in her name, “to be given to someone who has fought against oppression and for equal space in mainstream society,” said Barrera.

The first recipient of the award was Curtis Harris, a Staff Associate for Community Development and Organizing/Health at Access Living. Curtis first graduated from the Access Living Youth Leadership program, and was active with Advance Youth Leadership Power and Chicago ADAPT before becoming a Staff Associate. In his role as staff associate, Curtis was integral in the planning and implementation of multiple advocacy trips Access Living took this spring to Springfield, IL to speak with and educate legislators about the impact of the State Budget on people with disabilities. Each week, many from Access Living rose in the early morning hours to make the trip to the capitol. However, Barrera recalled an incident that underscored Curtis’ commitment to and excitement around the issue. He asked several participants what time they had woken up to make the train. “I asked people to raise their hand if they got up at 5,” Beto said. “Then I asked people to raise their hand if they got up at 4 or 3. When I specifically asked Curtis, who hadn’t raised his hand yet, what time he got up, he simply said that he had never gone to sleep that night.”

Curtis’ particular involvement with and understanding of the mental health movement made him an apt candidate and recipient of the 2012 Helen Morley award. When asked how he felt about receiving the award, Curtis put it simply, “This is a great honor. But the fight is not over. We have a long battle ahead.” Curtis is right.

Even though Illinois has approved a budget, Medicaid supports, Home Services and other issues are still relevant on a state and national level. In honor of Helen Morley, who, although she has passed, has a spirit that still thrives in the community, Curtis and many others will continue to fight until the goal of choice, independence and inclusion is achieved.

Submitted by Lauren Fliegelman

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