By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – A new Jewish communal initiative will help those coping with mental illness inspired by a young woman who lost her life to bi-polar disorder.
Tara Savin grew up in West Hartford and attended the Kingswood Oxford School, where she co-edited the yearbook and was voted “Best Dressed.” She graduated summa cum laude from Boston University with a BA in International Studies and a minor in Women’s Studies, and stayed on to earn a master’s degree in Mass Communications. After working at Town & Country Magazine in Manhattan, she completed her Master of Social Work degree at Fordham University and returned to Hartford in 2010 for an internship with Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford (JFS). That year, at age 38, Tara Savin took her own life.
This month, JFS will launch Tara’s Closet, a program that brings together Savin’s two greatest passions. “Tara was a great humanitarian and she also had incredible jobs in New York in fashion,” says Savin’s mother, Barbara Roth.
Tara’s Closet comprises a dual mission: to provide clothing to JFS clients in a confidential and dignified manner, and to raise funds to spread awareness about mental illness and the related help provided by JFS.
“Our overriding goal is to take mental illness out of the closet,” says Roth. “We hope to break the ceiling on mental health and mental illness in the community because people are very much afraid of it and afraid to talk about it.”
Organizers are working to raise funds to promote JFS programs and services, and plan a community-wide conference featuring a well-known speaker who has learned to cope with mental-health issues.
The initiative has already inspired a response from community members.
“I have received so many personal phone calls from people who have stepped forward and told me their stories about people in their immediate and extended families who have suffered from mental illness,” Roth says. “I think we are opening a very important door for conversation and we are taking the shame out of it.”
For five years, Roth struggled to find a meaningful way to honor her daughter’s life. She was at a Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford women’s philanthropy event last year with friends Jill Stoner and Fredda Goldstein when they met Kim Margolis, director of development at JFS.
“We were talking with Kim about women of a certain age who are in transition and who seem to have lost their place in the community,” Roth recalls. With Margolis’s help, the three started a group at JFS for Baby Boomer women who wanted to reconnect and give back to the Jewish community.
One day, the women noticed people walking into the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry at JFS. “I said to the others, ‘They look just like us and here but for the grace of God, we’re not in that position at the moment, but you never know what life is going to do to you,’” Roth says. “I asked Kim, ‘If people are coming in to feed their families, how are they clothing their families?’ We realized that there was nothing in the Jewish community any longer to address that need and a lightbulb went off in my head: this would be a perfect way to honor Tara’s life and all of her accomplishments.”
Over the past year, Roth has formed a 40-member steering committee, which she co-chairs with Stoner and Goldstein. JFS is inviting individuals and businesses to support and sponsor Tara’s Closet. Jeffrey Ellenberg, owner of Esquire Cleaners in West Hartford, is generously donating dry-cleaning and laundering services. Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield is providing both clothing-storage and sorting space and the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Debra Cantor, who will serve as rabbinic advisor to the program.
“This is a wonderful hands-on opportunity for men and women of all ages to give back to the community and perform mitzvot and be involved in tikkun olam; increasing the well-being of humankind is one of the essential elements of repairing the world,” says Margolis. “Helping those who are in need, no matter in what capacity, is vital and ‘holy’ work.”
Tara’s Closet will be open four times a year and staffed by volunteers who will help JFS clients choose items for themselves and their families. Donations of clothing or funds are welcome.
“The obvious reason for people visiting the closet is that they need clothing, but the underlying issue is that they’re experiencing challenges in their lives, and many of them are suffering from mental illness,” says Margolis. “Through donations to Tara’s Closet, we hope to make people aware that Jewish Family Services is a resource in our community for people to turn to in times of need, and not only with the greatest challenges. We provide counseling, education, and community support to help people of all religions advance along the path toward emotional well-being, self-reliance, more positive relationships, and a renewed sense of possibility.”
Roth and Margolis note that the launch of Tara’s Closet resonates with the theme of this year’s Mental Health Month: “Life with a Mental Illness.”
“If telling my story can help even one person, it is worth it,” says Roth. “I just hope that we can help people who are suffering from mental illness because it is truly the most debilitating, painful thing that I have witnessed. If you just have one person in your family who is suffering, the emotional and financial drain is overwhelming because there is very little help financially out there in the insurance world and other sources for people suffering from mental illness.”
Roth says that mental illness carries the same societal stigma that cancer evoked when she was a child. But it is even more crucial to lift the taboo from mental illness.
“There’s a danger with mental illness which touches everyone,” she says. “Not every person who suffers from mental illness turns violent, but there is that component in our society today and I think none of us feels safe when we go to the mall or the movies or send our children to school. There is not an area in this country that is not touched by the possibility of a violent act by someone who is suffering and can no longer cope and unfortunately takes it out on the population. For me, that’s one component that is very important in the educational process of Tara’s Closet, because if we can make people understand the red flags, maybe we can prevent some of this violence.”
Roth also wants to bring the issue of suicide into the public conversation, which is “like an epidemic in our country today,” she says. “Prior to Tara’s death, I probably didn’t notice it as much but I hear of it almost on a daily basis, whether it’s our servicemen coming back from war or teenagers or young people going to college. There’s something wrong in our society and we need to try to help these people and stop suicide before it happens. With organizations like Jewish Family Services, we can hopefully slow it down.”
As someone who has first-hand experience with mental illness and suicide in her family, Roth offers some essential advice for others.
“The most important thing is, if someone suspects or sees any sign in a family member that seems slightly irregular or different from the person’s usual behavior, they should immediately go for professional help to better understand what’s going on,” she says. “For both the person who is observing the changes and the person who is feeling slightly odd or unsettled or different, it’s very important to talk to a medical profession – even with their general family physician and go from there – because this does impact the entire family.”
Margolis hails Roth as an inspiration for her courage and dedication to helping others. “While these issues are very hard to publicize in the community, Barbara has given us a platform to promote our mental-health services in a way that is accepting for others to feel comfortable, to come forward, and talk about something that has been taboo for so many years,” she says. “We are moved and motivated by Barbara’s strength and leadership honoring her daughter.”
In addition to donations of clothing and funds, Tara’s Closet also offers giving opportunities in honor or in memory of loved ones. Roth’s daughter, Candi Savin, recently asked a group of friends to donate clothing in lieu of birthday gifts. A Tara’s Closet clothing-donation bag will be available at upcoming launch events and at JFS. Three monthly “Tuesdays for Tara” in May, June, and July, will precede the August 1 opening of Tara’s Closet.
TO DONATE CLOTHES TO TARA’S CLOSET^
Tara’s Closet is grateful for donation of lightly worn clothing and out
outerwear for men, women, teens and children
We cannot accept: undergarments: shoes, boots, socks and swimwear
Collection dates: Donations may be dropped off at Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, May 31, June 28, June 26.
TARA’S CLOSET COMMUNITY-WIDE EVENTS
Monday, May 23: Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Women’s Philanthropy event, “Living with Intention”
Thursday, June 23 at the Mandell JCC and Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford: opening reception of “John Meyer of Norwich: An American Original” exhibit; special guest, Elise Meyer
In November, Tara’s Closet will be highlighted at the Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford “Helping Our Hungry” annual fundraiser.
For more information call Kim Margolis, (860) 236-1927 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.