SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – For hundreds of people struggling with mental illness, a downtown San Jose center has been their lifeline for decades, thanks to this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

Carol Larson sat comfortably on a couch, surrounded by friends. She has struggled with schizophrenia, but she’s found a special place in a social club for recovering mental health patients.

“I feel like I belong,” she said simply.

Wanda Alexander is the CEO of ACT for Mental Health in downtown San Jose. It’s a no-cost or low-cost drop-in center for mental health patients that’s been around more than fifty years.

“We need to give a little bit of leeway to people and give them a helping hand to find other ways of functioning,” Alexander explained.

Alexander first came to ACT for Mental Health in 1960 and volunteered as a group counselor until she retired in 1982. But when the center was in danger of closing in 1990, she came back.

“I came back to meet the needs of the people here,” she said.

As CEO, she reorganized the center’s finances and built up the counseling staff. Even today, in her mid-80s, she’s still meeting the growing needs of the center’s 500-plus clients. She recently welcomed volunteer Andres Florez’s idea to start a new support group for bipolar clients.

“She was encouraging off the bat,” Florez said. “She was happy with what we were doing.”

Under Alexander’s leadership, ACT for Mental Health has added a variety of services, from parenting and anger management classes to English as a second language.

Her goal is to make sure ACT stays open for the people who need mental health counseling. Many of them are not insured, don’t have Medi-Cal, and on limited income. The center is centrally located on Park Avenue in San Jose, where people can either walk or take public transportation.

Volunteer Cindy McCalmont says she’s is a problem-solver who sees beyond mental illness.

“What Wanda does is she sees people as people,” McCalmont explained. “Sometimes in need of help or intervention, but they’re people”

“We hope that ACT will be a place where they can find an identity, acceptance, and belonging,” Alexander added.

So for decades of leadership in offering mental health services, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Wanda Alexander.

Note: ACT doesn’t get any government funding. It exists on private donations. The organization is fortunate that the city of San Jose gave them their headquarters, an outdated Traffic Control building for a one dollar a year lease. If you’d like to help:

(© Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.) 


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