RICHMOND -- For about eight years, Dean Spencer struggled to cope with the drive-by killing of his 20-year-old son in 2001.

"It broke me down," said Spencer, 55. "I couldn't sleep. What really got me was he (the shooter) didn't even know him. He shot him in the back. It messed me up burying my son. My mind stayed wrapped around that box for years, and I had to really overcome it."

Spencer's life turned around in 2009 when he came to the Wellness and Recovery Center, a facility within Mental Health Consumer Concerns Inc. The nonprofit organization offers free peer services to about 400 mental health clients and their families each year, including wellness and recovery planning and life skills training in Richmond, Antioch and Concord.

It is one of more than 30 East Bay organizations being helped this holiday season through Bay Area News Group's annual Share the Spirit campaign. The Wellness and Recovery Center will use its share of the donations to help pay for art supplies, field trips to plays such as "A Christmas Carol," guest speakers, training for peer volunteers and providing a holiday meal and gifts to low-income clients, who would otherwise go without, said Maria Ramirez, the center's director.

"It goes toward making a home for the consumers on multiple levels," she said.

Spencer said he and others at the center greatly appreciate the donations that make the annual holiday celebration possible.


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"A lot of them don't have family to go to," Spencer said. "We wait around for this time of year knowing that this is going to happen, so that's what we look forward to."

With the help of medication and his own recovery plan, Spencer is now a peer volunteer who reaches out to others who are grappling with difficult situations. Drawing on his own experiences, he offers words of wisdom to help them get past the stigma of mental illness.

"People get on the bus and laugh at you and make fun of you," Spencer said. "That kind of hurts them and makes them think they aren't ordinary kids when they grow up like that. You never know what somebody's been through. They have feelings."

Spencer brought his friend, Kenneth Melvin, to the center a few years ago, after Melvin's mother and brother died.

"I didn't fully understand my mental illness," said Melvin, 55. "I almost committed suicide a few times."

Like Spencer, Melvin has worked through his depression. He completed training so he could become a peer volunteer. He also recently married and moved into his own home.

"I lost a brother and auntie this year, and I have not gone back on drugs or alcohol," Melvin said proudly. "I'm voting again. I'm re-establishing myself. I actually have a PG&E bill. My life is getting back to complete."

Peter Hodges, 49, is another success story. He got a job at Goodwill in June, after beating drug and alcohol addictions and learning to deal with paranoia and agitation, as well as physical disabilities he has had since he was hit by a camper-truck just before his sixth birthday. He has partial use of his left arm and wears a brace on his left leg. But he's optimistic about his future.

"I owe doing something good with my life to the center," he said. "You develop a plan, and you start doing something."

Stephen Marks, who oversees education and training at the center, draws on his background as a mental health patient for perspective in his work. As a teen, he was locked in seclusion in two New Jersey state hospitals, where he received shock treatments.

"If I had known about a program like this," Marks said, "I probably wouldn't have had to be in the second hospital."

Those at the center also include a woman who saw her family massacred, another who was abused by her husband, a man rescued from an abusive board and care facility and others with drug problems, said Renee Owens, Wellness and Recovery Center coordinator. Yet, they are all making progress in their own way, she said.

Some people, Spencer said, grew up in families that told them they couldn't succeed.

"I tell them, 'I know there are rich movie stars that take the same medications as you, and they are successful,'" he said. "We love to let them know, 'You are somebody. You can do it.'"

SHARE THE SPIRIT
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Readers who wish to help can clip the coupon accompanying this story and send it to the address printed on it. The Volunteer Center of Contra Costa administers the fund. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of Contra Costa at 925-472-5760. To contribute online go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate/More information about Mental Health Consumer Concerns Inc. is available by calling 925-521-1230 or by visiting www.mhccnet.org. For more details, visit the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.