On October 29, 2017, the behavioral health world said its saddened goodbyes to Clarissa Nina Castellano.
Clare (as she preferred to be called) graduated from the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University with degrees in Psychology and Social Work, the first member of her very large family to achieve a Masters degree. Her naturally strong work ethic was noticed and commended by all, first at CYFD working with the children under her care and also at Molina New Mexico as Care Coordinator 3 and mentor to two care coordinator teams. It was at Molina that Clare shone brightest, working in the field with higher needs peers, many of whom attended our DBSA Albuquerque weekly peer support groups. The kind care she provided these peers (who she called her “little members”) was always a highlight of what they shared with our group. The amount of love and care these peers received from Clare is a rarity in the New Mexico behavioral health community. She didn’t merely go through the motions. Clare became a trusted person in their often confusing and chaotic lives.
Clare was licensed as an LMSW in New Mexico, and with her vast knowledge and on the “front line” experience, when she accepted our request to bring her personal and professional acumen to the management of our peer support groups and education programs, our chapter and our community were instantly all the richer.
The best way for DBSA Albuquerque to remember and honor Clare is to share a few anecdotes of why she is such an amazing person, and how her passion for helping others empower themselves was not a career, it was her calling.
Early in Clare’s collaboration with DBSA Albuquerque, she brought to our attention the need for transportation for many peers who would attend our groups if they could only get there. Working with Clare, we were able to be considered a “provider” (we are not, we are a volunteer peer-run organization), and with this status many of her “little members” began attending DBSA groups using their MCO (managed care organization) medical transportation benefits. For the first time, these peers were able to come from all parts of our community to our three weekly venues that for them were always too far to travel by foot. Many of these peers continue to attend our support groups.
Clare also took part in helping to develop the SUTS (Stand Up To Stigma, in collaboration with our chapter) Laugh It Off program by attending our weekly presentation at Turquoise Lodge Hospital in Albuquerque. If you are unfamiliar with Turquoise Lodge Hospital, they are a facility dedicated to helping peers with substance issues, many of whom have an underlying and often undiagnosed behavioral health component to their daily challenges.
Laugh It Off is a program where our SUTS peer presenters (we recruit those peers with co-occurring life experiences) stand up before an audience and do . . . stand up comedy, centered on essentially making fun of ourselves based on the horrible things that have happened in our lives as a result of our diagnoses and symptoms. As Clare put it, “If you can laugh at the horrible things that have happened to you, it takes away the horror and gives you back your power.”
At Turquoise Lodge Hospital, because we are at an inpatient facility with peers who are struggling, rather than doing a question and answer session after the comedy routines, we spin the program into a DBSA peer support group. Clare’s admiration for the successful implementation of this model got her thinking of what else we could do to make the experience as positive as possible for the patients. Because many of her “little members” contend with co-occurring challenges, she had several recommendations for Laugh It Off.
The most important recommendation that was hard-fought to garner was not limiting the choice of words for the patients during the support group; at Turquoise Lodge Hospital, cursing is not allowed from the patients. Taking this recommendation/request to Jackie West of Turquoise Lodge Hospital, and combining Clare’s advice with Jackie’s insistence that providers not be in the room during Laugh It Off (including Jackie), the support group portion of the program became an open, welcome, and safe environment where many of these inpatient peers talked about very personal topics they had never shared anywhere before. They connected and realized (for many) that they were not alone in their struggles. Clare’s recommendation gave a one hour reprieve from word choice restrictions because, as Clare put it, “How can you express what is in your heart if you are constantly worried you’ll get in trouble for saying how you really feel using the words most natural?”
Clare’s calling and passion for helping others wasn’t limited to places like Molina and Turquoise Lodge Hospital. There was no “off switch” to her heart. One such illustration of this happened at Tiguex Park in Old Town Albuquerque. Having lunch with DBSA Albuquerque president Steve Bringe, Clare and he met a young couple who had just arrived in Albuquerque from Santa Fe. They were experiencing homelessness, and the young lady was in her third trimester of pregnancy. They came to Albuquerque because they knew there were better services in Bernalillo County than Santa Fe. They just didn’t know where to obtain these services.
Clare and Steve spent Clare’s lunch hour writing down notes, numbers, services, contacts, facilities . . . any and all of their combined knowledge they knew would be helpful to this young couple, this forthcoming young family. Later, Clare said, “I totally forgot to tell them out an MCO postpartum benefit! We need to go back to Tiguex Park and find them!” And that’s exactly what happened, although it wasn’t only information Clare and Steve returned with. Blankets, a backpack, and a picnic dinner accompanied them, and what was intended as a moderate amount of time spent getting to know the young couple and ensure they had as much helpful information as possible turned into an all-night camp out playing games and sharing stories.
A pet project of Clare’s we never had the opportunity to develop is literally a pet project. Clare’s dog, a Chihuahua named Hamlet, brought her such joy and comfort that she felt peers living alone would also benefit from having a canine companion. Clare’s wish was to partner with the City of Albuquerque to match shelter dogs with peers. This is still a project for our chapter to pursue, although under her guidance the project would have come to fruition much sooner and would have been successful right from the start.
Clare’s tenure as DBSA Albuquerque’s Provider Advisor was far too short in terms of the amount of time she served. In terms of the manner and magnitude of her contributions to our chapter, our peer members, and our community, Clare has changed DBSA Albuquerque deeply and eternally. It is not an exaggeration stating Clare Castellano is the finest provider advisor DBSA Albuquerque has had the honor of collaborating with in the three decades we have been a DBSA chapter.
Our community is left with a void that will never be filled. When Clare passed last October, our chapter did not lose a colleague, we lost our cherished friend and the kindest soul. Clare Castellano, among all her wonderful qualities, is irreplaceable.
May angels lead you in, Clare. Thank you for being you from your friends at DBSA Albuquerque.