Woman fights stigma attached to mental illness
By Lisa DeNeal Post-Tribune correspondent May 23, 2013 10:48AM
Updated: July 27, 2013 3:03AM
Three years after a movie depicted the friendship between Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, Ayers’ sister, Jennifer Ayers-Moore, said the reality of her brother living with schizophrenia goes on with challenges and victories that no film crew documents.
“He is doing fine for now. He just moved into a new apartment,” Ayers-Moore said prior to speaking at Edgewater Systems for Balanced Living’s sixth annual Northwest Indiana Mental Health Awareness Luncheon and Awards Celebration May 16 at the Avalon Manor in Hobart.
She is the founder and executive director of the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation in Atlanta and is a strong advocate of mental health awareness and travels across the U.S. using the motto, “Hear the Music, Stop the Stigma!”
She praised Edgewater Systems for its efforts in working to remove the stigma.
“I am so impressed with the staff at Edgewater; I felt the energy and the camaraderie. I saw all of the programs you offered and got a tour of the grounds that will be the new South Shore Commons that will provide housing for the homeless. I truly appreciate all the work that you do,” Ayers-Moore said.
Ayers-Moore’s brother was homeless and living on skid row in Los Angeles. Ayers-Moore did not have any contact with him after the death of their mother in 2000. She kept the same telephone number in case he’d reach out to her.
In 2005 Lopez ran into Ayers and after writing a column, was drawn to the homeless musician and asked permission to write about him. Those columns led to Lopez’s book, “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music.” That book led to a movie, “The Soloist,” released in 2009 starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. as Ayers and Lopez.
Ayers-Moore also received a call from her brother in 2005.
She said the Hollywood lights are gone and after some extra attention to the plights of those dealing with mental illness, the struggles remain.
She added that her brother’s recent move is a victory and relief for him, as it took a month to convince Ayers to pack up and move from his previous apartment of seven years.
“He was used to the environment, but he was also vandalizing the property. It is how he expresses himself as a visual artist,” she said.
Ayers-Moore currently lives in Atlanta and plans to visit her brother in California in a couple weeks.
Nathaniel Tony Ayers was also a gifted, self-taught musician who developed schizophrenia while attending Juilliard.
“I remember going with my mom to pick him up from Juilliard. It was two years after he started; he was always so dapper about how he looked and dressed. Two years later he came to the car wearing plaid pants and a tattered sweater. We did not recognize him. On the drive back to Cleveland I pretended to be asleep because he was rambling on and on ... and it was breaking my heart,” she said.
Ayers-Moore spoke about the painful and gratifying journey of reaching out, then staying connected with her brother, who now wants to be addressed as “Tony Ocean.”
“The story behind the name is, our mother called him Tony and he always loved being near the ocean,” she said.
Also at the banquet, Edgewater presented former Lake County Superior Court Juvenile Division judge Mary Beth Bonaventura with the Most Valuable Voice Award-Mental Health Advocate of the Year.
Bonaventura is now director of the Indiana Department of Children Services.
“I’ve trained 31 years for my current position,” she said. “I retired as a judge March 24 and became the director March 25. I will continue the fight to remove the stigma of (mental illness from) children. Children should not be labeled.”
The Ambassadors of Edgewater also presented Edgewater executive director Danita Johnson Hughes with a check for $5,000 to continue services for clients at the facility.