By Katy Beedle-Rice
Spring 2015 Alaska Catholic magazine

Debbie and Dick Fagnant IMG_5689
Debbie and Dick Fagnant

Dick and Debbie Fagnant of Juneau have some pretty fun wedding stories. For one, the bride wore green, and she and her gray-polyester-clad groom were both on hand to greet the guests as they arrived for the wedding Mass. Debbie remembers, “Walking down the aisle and seeing each other for the first time wasn’t the focus. It was the two of us greeting all of these people we loved and who had come to celebrate with us, and recognizing that they had been and would continue to be a part of our lives.”

The symbolism of enfolding family and friends into their lives has traveled with the couple ever since. Now approaching nearly four decades of marriage, they continue to live that message as leaders of the Family-to-Family program, helping families deal with mental illness.

“What has been found is that people with mental illness are the most successful in a recovery situation when they have family members who can support them.” Dick says. “If that isn’t in place, there is a much higher failure rate. People end up on the street, in jails, or in desperate situations.”

‘Ruined for Life’

Recalling their wedding day after 37 years of married life, Debbie has a word that comes to mind, “We were just sort of alternative.” Dick agrees with a chuckle, “That’s well-stated.”

Debbie Fagnant June 1976
Debbie Fagnant teaching in 1976 at St. Mary’s in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Not surprisingly, their unique relationship began in a similarly “alternative” movement, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Dick explains, “In JVC there’s a saying, ‘You’re ruined for life.’ You realize that living a more simplistic life can bring you happiness. That service is important.” Debbie continues: “That you can think outside of yourself. That faith is a cornerstone of your life. And community. Those are the four principles of JVC (faith, simplicity, social justice, community). What the JVC did was, they named it, and once they named it, we claimed it.”

Serving as Jesuit Volunteers in the 1970s in St. Mary’s, a village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Dick and Debbie both worked as teachers as part of the JVC group that staffed the St. Mary’s Mission. Dick was a teacher for the Mission, which acted as a boarding school for surrounding high school students. Debbie taught in the local elementary school. Their time in St. Mary’s (three years for Debbie, and two for Dick, who took a year in the middle to earn his teaching credentials in Anchorage) seemed to set the trajectory for their marriage.

“Debbie and I look back at our St. Mary’s experience, particularly at the Yupik culture, (and) a piece of our heart is still there,” Dick explains. Debbie adds, “I think it’s where we really fell in love with teaching. There was an expectation, and we were happy with it, that we weren’t just work-hours teachers. It was a very small community and we were part of the community and we were welcome in everyone’s home and appreciated. We remember all the names of those kids that we taught. It was a wonderful time.”

From JVC to Juneau

Since leaving St. Mary’s in 1977 and getting married, the Fagnants have settled in Juneau, raised three children and fostered a niece, and put in a combined 65 years of teaching in the Juneau School District. Now, in their retirement, Debbie and Dick have found a new ministry to focus on: volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

When their own family was touched by mental illness, Debbie and Dick received support and help from the Family-to-Family course offered by NAMI Juneau. Now, several years after having benefitted from the course themselves, Debbie and Dick are both certified to teach the Family-to-Family course, offered several times a year in Juneau. This past year they traveled to Washington, D.C. to be trained as teacher trainers for the program. In January, Dick and Debbie led a three-day course in Anchorage to train people from all over Alaska to lead Family-to-Family courses in their own communities. The couple is also active at the administrative level—Debbie is the current president of the board for NAMI Juneau, and Dick was recently elected to the state board of NAMI Alaska.

NAMI serves a vast need; as their website (www.nami.org) states, “Nearly 60 million Americans experience a mental health condition every year. Regardless of race, age, religion or economic status, mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children across the United States.”

People to Walk beside You

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, it still remains a highly isolating experience for individuals and families impacted by it. Dick explains, “People are afraid of mental illness because they don’t understand it and it’s stigmatized tremendously, which is sad.” If NAMI were to have one central message it would be, “basically, you’re not alone,” Debbie adds. “Others have done this. There will be people to walk beside you.”

That’s why the12-week Family-to-Family course is an important ministry for the Fagnants. The course invites families and friends of people experiencing a mental illness to learn in a supportive environment about supporting and caring for their loved one and themselves with others who are going through the same experience, and the teacher is someone who has been touched by mental illness in a similar way.

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Dick and Debbie Fagnant are active volunteers for the Alaska chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill).

The importance of programs like Family-to-Family is two-fold. First of all, Debbie explains, “the experience of a family member having a mental illness is a traumatic event for the whole family. The second is, that the family member (with a mental illness) will be best served with an educated supportive family. The goal of the class is both to educate and to show how the rest of the family can be supportive, and how they need to care for themselves.”

Debbie and Dick feel fortunate that their involvement with NAMI was able to start as soon as their teaching careers ended: “We have a place in our heart (for NAMI). And at this point we’ve got energy for it. People hit retirement and they do different things . . . at some point I’m going to get tired of myself. It’s like an intellectual challenge and it’s a passion,” Debbie says. It’s also something that has been therapeutic for their own life journey. She adds, “Sometimes being able to take that hard experience and all that confusion and to funnel it into something very deep, where we can be helpful, can be really healing.”

From their time teaching in St. Mary’s, to greeting the guests at their wedding, to volunteering with NAMI, the Fagnants’ marriage has been sustained and animated by their dedication to building community. Debbie muses, “There’s something about making the world a better place. That was a message we tried to pass on to our kids, as well as to live ourselves. Just to make it a little kinder, a little more connected.”