NAMI Blue Water Area leaders share their motivation behind getting involved

When Port Huron resident Victoria “Tori” Ferres was a teenager, her mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For years to come, Ferres and her mom struggled to work through the various systems that provide treatment for those with mental illness.

“St. Clair County has awesome mental health resources, but it's like we could just never figure it out,” says Ferres, now 34. “As a family, we could never get her the right treatment. It took years and years.”

Victoria Ferres, President of NAMI Blue Water Area.From figuring out how to get her mom the proper treatment and where to go for treatment to learning about Bipolar Disorder, Ferres explains there was a lot to discover following her mom’s diagnosis.

“It was really hard and there were no groups or nonprofits that could just give you some general guidance, point you in the right direction, or have a support group,” she says.

If there had been a support group for family members of those with mental illness, for example, Ferres says she would have attended because it could have not only provided her with education about her mom’s diagnosis but with the knowledge that she wasn’t alone. Particularly as a teenager, in the early days of her mom’s diagnosis, Ferres sometimes felt very alone.

“My mom could act very erratically and people in my high school would find out about it,” Ferres recalls. “She didn't choose this, though. There's absolutely nothing she did that caused it or made it worse. She didn't ask for this just like she wouldn’t ask to have cancer. But if she would have had cancer during that time, people would have been doing fundraisers for me. No one did anything of the sort, though. Then, it was just people laughing about it.”

Tori Ferres, President of NAMI Blue Water Area, leads the monthly NAMI meeting to discuss outreach activities and trainings the group can provide to the community.

Today, Ferres says her mom is doing well and is an amazing grandma; and, Ferres is working to ensure no one has to feel as alone as she did while helping her mom. As President of the new NAMI Blue Water Area, she is looking forward to providing support for those with mental illness as well as their family members.

Debra Johnson, CEO of St. Clair County Community Mental Health and President of the Dementia and Alzheimer’s Association of St. Clair County.Debra Johnson, CEO of St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH), approached Ferres a few years ago to discuss getting a local affiliate of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) running in the community once more as it had been disbanded over a decade ago. Ferres says she felt it was the “perfect fit.”

“This is exactly what I would have been looking for as a 14-15 year-old,” Ferres says. “It’s what my family would have loved. It would have been great to have a support group like NAMI to tell my own story and to feel heard.”

NAMI Blue Water Area officially received its 501c3 status in November 2023 and is hitting the ground running as they work to start up multiple support groups and educational opportunities.

Among the various programs NAMI Blue Water will offer will be Peer-to-Peer as well as Family-to-Family support groups. The first 8-week Peer-to-Peer support group started January 30, and Ferres anticipates that other support groups will start up later this spring.

“Our job is not to provide the treatment services, but rather to just be there to support, listen to people, provide resources, and share our experiences,” Ferres says. “I think it's really powerful to listen to other people's stories and also to feel like your story is being heard. A lot of times, especially as a family member, your needs may be pushed to the side because the focus is on getting your family member treatment and making sure they're okay.”

Johnson says she believes NAMI is a more approachable avenue for some individuals with mental illness and their families to seek support. She adds that when the previous local NAMI affiliate was functioning, SCCCMH worked with them to provide education, diagnoses, and several pathways to supporting a person through recovery.

“When a person is first diagnosed, many times family members don't understand the diagnosis. As an example, I’ve had a high school student with depression tell me, ‘My dad tells me to just get up, get out of bed, and that I’m being silly.’ Depression isn’t like that, though. You can't just get up, forget about it, and move on. So often people don't really understand the diagnosis, and it takes a while to teach them about it,” says Johnson.

NAMI Blue Water Area Board (from left) Secretary Laura Bramlett, President Tori Ferres, Vice President Lisa K. Arnett, and Treasurer Emily Uppleger.

Emily Uppleger, an East China resident and Treasurer of NAMI Blue Water Area, also knows just how difficult it can be to help a loved one navigate a new mental health diagnosis.

Emily Uppleger, Treasurer of NAMI Blue Water Area.“I think having an outlet to connect with someone who had previous experience could make a world of difference,” says Uppleger. “It's very difficult to find any type of direct resource or information about how to navigate not only the legal processes through this system but also the medical support, physical support, and emotional support that your loved one might need as they're dealing with this new medical diagnosis.”

As NAMI Blue Water Area works to support those with mental illness as well as their families, community members are encouraged to get involved. For those with mental illness and their family members, that may mean attending one of the support groups.

Others may wish to volunteer or support this new grassroots organization in another way. An upcoming fundraiser where a portion of the proceeds will benefit NAMI Blue Water Area, Face Off for Mental Health, will be held on March 15 during the Port Huron Prowlers game. Tickets can be purchased online through SCCCMH.

Among other activities and fundraising opportunities at the game, Ferres says there will be some great raffle baskets available.

“One of them is definitely going to have four Redwings tickets for the April 7 game and a parking pass,” she says. “We also have a three-month membership to the YMCA.”

Meetings and support groups at NAMI Blue Water Area are free and open to the community. Uppleger says volunteers are needed at the organizational level as they work to get running in the community and spread information about their services.

“There’s absolutely no limit to who can be involved,” she says. “We'd love for anyone who feels a calling for this type of work to please come and be involved.”

Information about monthly meetings, new support groups, and educational opportunities can be found at
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Read more articles by Gabrielle Haiderer.

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities - interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets - from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.