Orlando Montes knows mental illness in an intimate way. His mother was a diagnosed with
schizophrenia when he was a child. Growing up was hard for Montes and his siblings, who were often caught between their mother's symptoms, the stigma and shame that resulted from being a "different" family and the less-than-stellar health care infrastructure available for behavioral health issues.
But Montes remains close to his mother who is now in a specialized nursing home. In fact, his affection for his mom led him to the work he has today -- as the program manager for an Arizona cafe that doubles as a vocational rehabilitation center for adults with mental illnesses.
The lunch spot, called Café 54, is nestled in downtown Tucson. Since 2004, the nonprofit bistro has won accolades from the local press for its cuisine while also assisting more than 250 adults with behavioral health issues. Some of the common challenges among employees are depression, anxiety and the often-intertwined affliction of substance abuse.
Montes' mother, due to her illness, only held two jobs in her life -- both before Montes was old enough to remember. But Montes fondly recalls his mother speaking about her employment.
"She would talk about this all the time," said Montes. "The job that she had, how she had her certain duties that had to be done and how they counted on her. And it was this big source of pride for her."
Montes acknowledges that jobs are a primary source of stress for people. But he understands from his childhood how important a job is to a person's well being. A sense of purpose goes a long way for all of us, and those with behavioral health issues are no exception. Armed with a first-hand understanding of the challenges those with mental illnesses face and a deep reservoir of compassion, Montes now helps people find that fulfillment.
"I never really saw my mother," said Montes, "get a chance to work. And so, sometimes I look around the cafe, and I have this really odd thing that's happening inside myself where I see my mother in other people. And I see them working. I'll look and I'll see and I'll think, 'oh, that's my mom, like... that's her.' It's healing me to see that happen."