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Then and Now

The Kim Foundation was first founded in 2001, nearly 13 years ago. Thirteen years seems like a long time, but there are still so many who are unsure of what we do or have never heard of the foundation. I’ve only been here for three of those 13 years, but I can no longer keep track of the number of times I’ve heard, “Kim, like the girl’s name?” Or, “Why was the foundation started? Why is mental health important to the family?” My answers to those questions are always the same, “Yes, Kim like the girl’s name. She was our founder’s daughter and suffered from mental illness and ultimately took her life.” Sometimes I elaborate a bit further, but we have never really got into the details. Behind the scenes certainly the family’s passion and close ties to mental illness are what drives us each day to advocate for those whose lives are touched by mental illness, and who need a voice when they can’t find their own. Grants are awarded each year, programs implemented, awareness built, and stigma fought, but never had Kim’s story been told publicly. Until now.

Larry Courtnage, our founder, recently sat down with Erin Grace of the Omaha World Herald and told his story so that others may better understand how far we’ve come as a community, but still how much work needs to be done. To also let others know that they aren’t alone in their fight against mental illness, that it can happen to anyone, and The Kim Foundation is here to connect you to resources as needed and support those who are providing services to such a vulnerable population. If you missed the article last week, you can read it here at Omaha World Herald.

While the landscape in our state’s mental health system has changed significantly since Kim’s interaction with the system, some concerns remain the same. The stigma still exists. People still suffer alone thinking no one else understands what they are going through. Funding is still lacking. The continuum of care still has some challenges through the process. And the list could go on and on. That being said, some things have changed and are significantly better! People are putting a greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention to help avoid as many crisis situations down the road. Public awareness campaigns, such as Don’t Be Sidelined, OK2Talk , and I Will Listen  exist to help start the conversation for people. Community-based services have been implemented throughout the state. Organizations are collaborating more than ever to better serve those in need. More research is being done to better understand the genetic components of mental illness, and how to better understand how the brain is impacted with an illness. And again, the list could go on and on. So we have to applaud ourselves and celebrate the successes, not just dwell on what still needs to be done.

Here at the foundation we continue to look at both sides – improvements and successes. Larry points out in the article that Kim always wanted to help people. That is the basis of the foundation – how can we help others in a similar situation? How can we help to start the conversation for people, because oftentimes a conversation about mental illness or one’s mental wellness is a difficult one to have. Last week we took a giant step toward our goal of creating the conversation and building awareness. We hosted A Time for Hope & Healing with Mariel Hemingway, who came to Omaha and spoke on her family’s tragic history of seven suicides (the most prominent her grandfather, Ernest, and sister Margaux), severe depression, and substance use.

One of Mariel’s most moving points is how she spent much of her life “Running from Crazy” trying to escape her family’s legacy of depression and suicide. She spoke how she often wondered if she would one day wake up and not be able to handle her life. Would she turn to suicide as well? Her turning point came during a meeting with the Dalai Lama who simply said, “You’re okay.” And with that affirmation, she reached a turning point and realized she was okay just the way she was. She didn’t need to look to external influences to get there, she said, “He was right. I was okay. I didn’t need to keep reaching outside to find myself, to find what was right for me.”

Mariel shared her journey and what it took to get her where she is today as a strong mental health advocate. She wants people to know that she understands their difficulties, their struggles, but also wants people to know that there is light and joy – both can be found. Mariel talked about how recovery looks differently for everyone. We here at The Kim Foundation often make this point. Some may respond to healthy life choices as she did; some may need medication; some may need therapy; some may need a combination of any of the above. The most important thing is for people to find what makes them live their most whole and healthy life. Another point Mariel made that the foundation is working to make people understand, is that the mind and the body, it’s all one. The mind is a part of the body and we hope people start embracing this outlook.

I want to close by once again thanking all of the people who made our event such a success. Our sponsors, volunteers, staff, longtime faithful supporters, and those new to the foundation – thank you!


Julia Hebenstreit, Executive Director of The Kim Foundation
Julia received her J.D. from Creighton University in 2005, and her BS in Journalism from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2002. She has been with The Kim Foundation for two and a half years, and prior to that worked for local non-profits doing development, strategic planning, communications and advancement. She has a passion for helping people and improving lives, and serves as an active member of the Nebraska Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska Association of Behavioral Health Organizations, the Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition and the Adolescent Mental Health Coalition. She also serves on the Women’s Fund Circles Board.