The drawing of an adorable, big-eyed, golden retriever puppy gracing the front of her greeting card delivers a "Forever Yours" message inside and draws compliments from outsiders.
"People have said to me, 'I really like this' or 'That's so cute,' and I think, 'Wow. I am worth something,'" says artist Ginger Brooks, a 58-year-old Schaumburg woman with mental illnesses, who drew that puppy named Amber and 114 other designs for The Card Project. The nonprofit greeting card business helps fund a rehabilitation program at the Kenneth Young Center, an Elk Grove Village-based nonprofit community center that provides mental health and senior services.
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"I've done all the teddy bears and most of the kid cards," Brooks says. "I'm sort of a kid at heart because I didn't get a childhood."
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and depression, Brooks matter-of-factly recounts the damage inflicted upon her as a girl.
"I spent my first 22 years in a religious cult in the woods, and nobody knew about me," Brooks says of an abusive childhood spent in rural Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. She figures she had several concussions that went untreated, and she wasn't allowed to take so much as an aspirin for her chronic earaches. When she did try to express herself through art, her loved ones interceded.
"Everything that I would draw, they would burn, and tell me that it was garbage and that I was garbage," Brooks says. "I never had a mind of my own. I never thought the sad would go away. I did not have one happy day. I didn't even think I deserved to eat. And that's why I came for therapy in the first place."
Brooks has been receiving treatment at Kenneth Young since 1987 and now is the inventory manager for The Card Project, which has produced 557 different styles of greeting cards, all created by nearly three dozen artists with mental illnesses.
"The Card Project staff are pioneers on the final frontier -- the mind," says Tica King, a veteran peer counselor at the center. "The challenges they have at The Card Project have really given them a sense of purpose and meaning and help them cope with their mental illnesses."
The rehabilitation value matters, but Michelle Layfield, president of the project, says she'd also like to see the group sell more cards, solicit more donations and make more money.
The Card Project was launched in October 2009 in response to state funding cuts to the center's psychosocial rehabilitation program, says Layfield, a journalism major at Oklahoma University who was diagnosed as an adult with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and dissociative identity disorder ("The new name for multiple personalities," she says). Layfield credits the center and The Card Project for her recovery.
"I was a very rage-filled person," a smiling Layfield says, describing how she felt upon arriving at the center after leaving her job in a corporate office for a major retail chain.
"I called her 'the suicide girl,' because every day she said she was going to kill herself, and I believed her," says Brooks, who now is in a relationship with Layfield. While the two still have occasional mental health episodes, they say they find help from each other and from The Card Project.
"The artwork, for me, is a way to give back," Layfield says.
"Same here," Brooks says.
"Three," echoes Mary Phelan, 53, the creative consultant for The Card Project. Phelan grew up in Hoffman Estates and now lives in Schaumburg, but she has been turning to the Kenneth Young Center for help with depression since 1980.
"I just like art," says Phelan, a former teaching assistant for kids with special needs. "I'm a crafty-type person."
Her cards, which boast collages and other more complicated features, sell for $3 each, while the others carry a $1 price tag. The group, which meets weekly and has had help from volunteer arts director Judy Leon, runs its nonprofit business out of a small, cramped room with a printer and closets full of inventory in plastic bins.
"It's miraculous," King says of the work that gets done in that space as well as the benefits reaped by the volunteers. "Work is the best thing for people with mental illnesses."
A man with schizophrenia draws darker cards of abstract images with hard-to-guess names such as "Butterfly," "Lady Valentine" or "World War II, the Aftermath." Another woman has designed 150 cards. The best-selling card features a snowman with the word "Joy."
"They have a lot and lot of problems, but they are able to do this," Brooks says of the artists. "We want to break the stereotype that people with mental illnesses can't do anything."
Lots of great artists throughout history have had mental illnesses, Layfield notes. The artwork on the greeting cards varies from professional landscape paintings to simple, almost childlike drawings. Even if they deem the artwork unworthy for a greeting card, Layfield says they always support the artists.
"Look at strengths and what they can do rather than how they've been damaged. It's amazing what people can accomplish," says Mitchell Bruski, chief executive officer of the center. "What's meaningful about this (The Card Project) is that counseling is more than what happens inside these four walls. It's what people do with their lives. It's how they put the ideas they talk about into action."
There is something about drawing a cute puppy, Brooks says, that makes a body feel good.
• To order cards, make a tax-deductible donation or to find out more, visit The Card Project website at thecardproject.org.