A few decades ago, Clare Cygan Young was a nurse who started volunteering for a rape crisis center in Cleveland.
The strength and resilience of the victims she met there struck her soul — and launched a career change that ended Friday after more than three decades championing those hurting and struggling with mental health issues in Lorain County.
“This is the best ending to my career,” she said. “This has been the perfect blend of being advocates of sexual assault survivors and then becoming an advocate and leader for people suffering from mental illness.”
Cygan Young, who will be 73 today, retired after four years as the executive director of NAMI of Lorain County. The grassroots agency is part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and has been in existence for 30 years or so, with volunteers helping to give support to those struggling with mental health issues and advocate for them — securing jobs and finding housing, insurance and proper care. The group also works to reduce the stigma attached to seeking help or admitting to mental illness.
It is a cause close to Cygan Young’s heart. In the past year she has begun openly talking about her short stay in a hospital 20 years ago, suffering from deep depression.
Like everything in her work, the experience led her — sideways — to the job she would later do.
She was in an “unlocked” unit for a few weeks near Christmas, when a nurse told her they were going to go to the “other side — the locked unit” to sing Christmas carols to the patients there.
“I thought, ‘What the heck? I’m depressed. I don’t want to sing carols.’ But when I did, I was so, so moved by these people who are terribly mentally ill and still have hope. These people have shown me hope and a way to get through my depression. I just fell in love with them, I wanted to be with them and help them. And they’re helping me, too.”
Her experiences working with rape survivors in Cleveland decades ago motivated her to leave her nursing career to work at the rape crisis center there.
Soon, Lorain County officials came calling: Would she come to the county and open a crisis center here?
Cygan Young opened the Lorain County Rape Crisis Center in 1988, operating out of the Nord Center in Lorain.
While there, she served as president of the Ohio Coalition on Sexual Assault and advocated for the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.
Before she left the Nord Center in 2006, she had started two more firsts in the county.
One was the Sexual Assault Care Unit, which allowed rape exams to be conducted at the Nord Center. Cygan Young wrote grants to secure funding to hire forensic nurses to conduct exams and collect evidence in a “truly anonymous setting” rather than in an emergency room, “because in Lorain County, everybody knows everybody.” That facility opened in 2000.
In 2004, she spearheaded Kidz First Child Advocacy Center, also at Nord.
It allowed children who had been sexually assaulted to be brought to a central location where “they could be interviewed, one time, in a safe place.” Children’s Services workers, law enforcement and advocates could be there, the interviews were taped, and the child would not have to recount their stories repeatedly to several people at different times.
Both programs still are running, although she moved on just two years later. She spent a couple years as the coordinator of affiliate minority programs at the Community Foundation of Lorain County before going to Leadership Lorain County.
That is where Cygan Young tried to retire — the first time.
She had spent seven years as internship coordinator for Leadership Lorain County and was looking forward to retiring to spend time with her husband, John.
But John died in late 2014, and as she planned her departure in early 2015, she realized her vision of retirement was forever changed.
“I thought, I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to be at home without him,” she said. “I just thought, I’m not done yet.”
At the same time, the executive director spot at NAMI opened up.
“I was retiring from there and they were having a party for me and about that time I got offered the job at NAMI,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t want a party this time. People aren’t believing me. Everyone keeps saying I’ll be back, being the director of something else, but I keep telling them, ‘Not this time.’”
Her personal experience managing depression and the years of being among mental health practitioners and mental illness sufferers while she worked at Nord opened a new community to her mission field: the mentally ill.
Often, sexual abuse can go hand-in-hand with mental illness; and on both sides of that coin, she has seen stories of survival.
“When people think of ‘the mentally ill,’ they think of the most severe cases. But in truth, anxiety and depression — which is much more common — is also mental illness. I used to think all the time of how you can go to a playground and see children laughing and playing and have no idea that 1 in 4 might be a sexual assault survivor,” she said.
“I didn’t know why I kept saying to myself all the years I worked in sexual assault, why am I in this? I feel firmly that God put me there. I honored them so much, and the resiliency these children had to get through this. You hear so often that a sexual assault survivor is ‘destroyed.’ But it’s not true. People do heal. It doesn’t mean they forget what happened to them, but they do take things a different way while they face it,” she said. “I fell in love with that population, and I felt this job was the best of both worlds. I loved walking with them in the journey.”
Under her lead, NAMI of Lorain County expanded, hiring three more staffers, for a total of five, and outgrew its old space in the Nord Center. It is now in the former Clark and Post Architects building across the street from Nord.
The agency has worked to expand its crisis intervention training, which trains police officers in dealing with people who might be in mental health crisis that leads to law enforcement involvement. One of her last duties on her last day on the job is attending the annual award dinner to recognize a crisis intervention officer as “officer of the year” for extraordinary empathy and compassion in a mental health situation.
She also is proud of the agency’s implementation of its Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors, or LOSS, program. Started one year ago, the agency trains volunteers to be on call and activated in the event of a suicide. Volunteers are notified by first responders, and then go to the scene to meet with family or friends, if they request it. They provide information and answers and can refer to resources for the family living in shock and grief.
The program started in Lorain and has expanded to Oberlin, but the goal is to coordinate with all local agencies and finding more recruits to screen and train.
Mike Eppley, who is replacing Cygan Young as executive director, knows he has big shoes to fill. He has worked with her in various capacities and has been on the NAMI board of directors for four years, recommended first by Cygan Young.
Eppley, who lives in Carlisle Township, has a background in nonprofit management, working with the Lorain County Farm Bureau and as executive director of Main Street Wellington for 15 years.
“I just want to build up on what Clare established as the foundation for our organization and continue to grow it,” he said.
One thing that will bear her mark in a tangible way is the Clare Cygan Young Fund for Women and Girls.
It was created in 2007 by colleagues, volunteers and community members to celebrate and recognize the achievements she has made to the girls and women of the county. It is a permanent legacy of the Community Foundation of Lorain County, to provide for the needs of girls and women.
“I just felt like I do about the people who survived the Holocaust. They have the right for those of us to feel their pain. They have a right for me to walk with them through their pain,” she said, recounting all those she has helped over the years — and the community that embraced her. “I have fallen in love with the people here in Lorain County. They are good people. … The mental health levies always pass. They’re very caring people.”
Cygan Young doesn’t know what is next for her, but she does have some dreams of things she’d like to do, she said. She wants more time with her children and her stepfamily members and “maybe do something fun for a change. I think that sounds nice after carrying such a heaviness.”