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Judith Brown earns kudos for her writings on the mentally ill.

In January 2001, Judy Brown published a quiet labor of love, a book of poems and essays about the time she spent with residents of a West Seattle group home for the mentally ill.

She got caught up in other pursuits after Sept. 11 and didn’t spend much time promoting “A Glove on My Heart: Encounters with the Mentally Ill.” Then, nearly six years later, the Bainbridge writer received a letter that made her cry with joy.

“When I got this notice from the Secretary of State of the State of Washington’s office that they had given the book this award, I was delighted,” Brown said. “Because as far as I was concerned, it had been pretty much forgotten.”

Unbeknownst to Brown, someone had nominated “A Glove on My Heart” as a spring 2007 “Washington Reads” selection. A book that had all but disappeared suddenly gained state-wide exposure and the potential for a whole new audience.

While “A Glove on My Heart” and Brown’s other published non-fiction book “Faranji” both center on her volunteer work, she says poetry and fiction were her first loves.

As she raised her young family in the 1960s with husband Jack, Brown found a creative outlet through playwriting, joining a Seattle workshop and participating in the production of her first work, “Two Adams,” about poet John Donne.

Jack Brown served as Group Health Cooperative’s first full-time psychiatrist and the architect of its original mental health program. He also witnessed the results of what is known as the IMD Exclusion, the U.S. Congress’s 1965 cessation of funds for state psychiatric hospitals and other “institutions for the treatment of mental disease.”

“As a psychiatrist,” Judy said, “he saw that after the state hospitals were closed, there were a number of people out on the streets that just didn’t have anywhere to go.”

So Jack and colleagues founded Transitional Resources, the housing community that served as the basis for “A Glove on My Heart.” There, staff members and volunteers help residents learn to manage basic life skills like cooking, cleaning and eventually, finding jobs and permanent housing.

“Since the beginning,” Judy said, “(Jack) had this idea and carried it out that the mentally ill really deserve respect and dignity.”

In that spirit, Judy herself volunteered full-time at Transitional Resources in 1997-98, acquiring enough on-the-job training to qualify as a rehabilitations counselor.

As she got to know the residents, whose mental conditions ran the gamut, she found herself inspired to write, to tell their stories through poetry.

At one point the director of the organization asked, “What are you going to get out of this?”

“Well, I might get a book,” she said.

While Brown was usually too tired to write at length on her evening ferry rides home, she jotted down notes about her daily experiences.

“Those notes turned into poems about each of the people,” she said. “I felt that the poems would make them more vivid.”

By the end of her year, Brown had 100 poems, all “scribbled” on the ferry, and none “very polished or accomplished.” She showed the collection to a poet, who suggested that she might find a broader audience if she added an essay component.

Brown refined the work into a lean portrait of 14 residents in poetry and prose.

The collection’s title had literal inspirations that struck a chord. One day she was helping a resident tidy his house. Brown describes the man as “such a character – he’s fun.”

But his house was “so dirty, it was nearly impossible.” She donned gloves and tackled the bathroom.

“It occurred to me...that you wear plastic and rubber gloves to protect you from bacteria,” she said. “And I needed to put a protective glove on my heart so I would not so identify with these people, (or) be disappointed when they did something more quirky than usual. It was a protective glove.”

Since that intense year of volunteering, Brown has scaled back her Transitional Resources schedule to Tuesdays, when she holds down the fort during staff meetings and administers medications to the residents.

The program is thriving, with a recently acquired second building of studio apartments, and some of the residents she originally worked with are still there.

She still isn’t sure who nominated “A Glove on My Heart” for the Washington Reads award, but she gets a huge kick out of the letter from the office of the Secretary of State.

It reads: “We were particularly impressed with your book’s warmth and understanding combined with compassion and respect for the residents as they struggle with their illnesses.”

“An adventure with the mentally ill can be really challenging but really fun,” Brown said. “That’s why I keep going back.”

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Reaching out

Judith Reynolds Brown’s “A Glove on My Heart” is available at Eagle Harbor Book Co. For information about the Washington Reads program, see www.secstate.wa.gov/library/wa_reads.aspx. To learn about Transitional Resources, see www.transitionalresources.org.

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