LEWISTON – More than a decade ago, Alma Desjardins started one of Maine’s first support groups for families with members suffering from mental illness. The group, which remains active, is called Relatives and Families Together for Support (RAFTS).

Her work was recently spotlighted at Russell Park, where she is a resident, as she was named the home’s resident of the month.

A registered nurse who recently retired after 42 years in psychiatric nursing, Desjardins served on the board of directors of Tri-County Mental Health for a decade and was the Area IV Mental Health Services Coalition director from 1985 to 1991.

She began her advocacy work to support families coping with mental illness when her own son, David, who lives in a group home in Lewiston, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s. She was struck by the lack of services available to patients and families and began her volunteer work in family support, education and advocacy for the mentally ill.

From 1981 to 2000, Desjardins was president and secretary of RAFTS and was instrumental in establishing three local residential care homes for the mentally ill. She also helped more than 20 other support groups get organized across the state and become affiliated with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

A Jefferson Award nominee in 1992, Desjardins was named Outstanding Family Member of the Year by the Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Maine in 1994.

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