The families in this town have welcomed the mentally ill into their homes — for the last 700 years.

At first glance, Geel seems like any other quaint farming village in the Belgian countryside.

There's a cute market square with plazas and cafes that feels fresh out of 1627, and plenty of delightfully eccentric townsfolk strolling through the streets. Geel (pronounced like "Hyale," kind of) could be just about any town in the province of Antwerp — at least, on the surface.


Photo via Odcdtd45/Wikimedia Commons.

But the casual visitor might not realize how many of these inhabitants are struggling with mental health.

That might sound like the start of a horror movie, but it's the reality that the residents of Geel live with every day — and there's absolutely nothing scary about it (nor should there be; we'll get to that).

In fact, these individuals are welcomed into the homes of any townsfolk who will have them. After undergoing a psychiatric evaluation at one of Geel's many mental health care facilities, those seeking help are integrated into the lives of host families in a system known as "family care."

And some of them stay for as long as 50 years.

That's the other thing: No one actually uses the phrase "mentally ill."

The preferred term is "boarders," although people are also known to refer to these guests (at worst) as "special" or "different."

While the host families do receive a stipend for their care (about $730/month), they are not provided with any background information or clinical diagnoses. This helps cut down on stigmas against people with mental illnesses as being sick or scary or dangerous. If a boarder requires medication or other treatment, the local hospitals will handle it outside the home.

Quite simply, boarders come to Geel when they've had difficulty coping on their own and have no one else to help them. Whatever reason, condition, or situation brought them there is irrelevant. (If that sounds dangerous or risky, remember that people with mental illnesses are significantly more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.)

"I've got it! What if we treated people with compassion and care and like actual people through the course of their psychiatric care?" "I guess that could work. Or we can just shove an icepick through their eyeball socket and cut their frontal lobe." "Yeah, you're right, that makes a lot more sense." Photo by Harris A. Ewing/Wikimedia Commons.

This might sound like a radical treatment, but Geel's been at it since the 13th century.

It all goes back to the story of St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness and nervous disorder (and also incest). Dymphna was an Irish princess whose pagan father kinda went off the deep end after her mother died.

Dymphna's father, Damon, loved his late wife so much that he ... uhhh ... fell in love with his daughter. But Dymphna had taken a vow of chastity for Christ (and also, gross, Dad!), so she fled her father's madness and ultimately settled in Geel ... until Damon tracked her down and cut her head off because she wouldn't marry him. Yay?

The Church of St. Dymphna in Geel. I imagine most of the cognitive behavioral therapy in the town consists of "Hey, at least your life's not as messed up as Dymphna's, huh?" Photo via JH-man/Wikimedia Commons.

A church was eventually built around Dymphna's grave, and the town began to gain a reputation as a mental, spiritual, and emotional sanctuary. The residents of Geel welcomed these asylum seekers with open arms — both as an act of Christian charity and because they needed help on their farms.

As modern psychiatry gained prominence in the 19th century, some people began to look on Geel as a backwards relic of the church. But the family care system continued to demonstrate success, and those skeptics eventually came around, leading to the hybrid of state-run psychiatric oversight and family care for boarders that still exists today.

Plenty of other places have used this revolutionary treatment, too — though none the size of an entire town.

In fact, "moral treatment" is the official name for this kind of psychiatric care (which, if you think about it, is pretty messed up and says a lot about how we approach mental health).

In the United State alone, there was the Quaker-run Friends Hospital, which opened its doors in 1817. (It was originally called the "Friends Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason," though I can't imagine why they changed it.) This was followed a few decades later by the similarly successful Pennsylvania Hospital.

It's a wonder that such a wild idea as "treating people with dignity" didn't catch on any faster.

Photo by Mike Renlund/Flickr.

Although the boarder population has declined in recent years, Geel's centuries-old system still stands as an exemplar of how communities can handle mental health.

At its height, Geel hosted some 4,000 boarders. Today, there are around 300 out of town's population of 35,000. This certainly isn't due to a lack of people struggling with mental health, but rather a decline in families willing to host boarders — though the reasons for this are also unclear (some people theorize that it has to do with the decreased need for farmhands).

What is certain is that Geel's revolutionary mental health care system had a positive impact on countless lives throughout the centuries. Sure, there's no catch-all cure for the wide range of psychiatric and neurological afflictions in the world. But imagine the difference it would make if we were all more willing to embrace empathy and create more communities that let people with mental illnesses live like they are — as people.

Here's a short video about a host family and their boarders in Geel:

RODNAE Productions via Pexels
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The past year has changed the way a lot of people see the world and brought the importance of global change to the forefront. However, even social impact entrepreneurs have had to adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

"The first barrier is lack of funding. COVID-19 has deeply impacted many of our supporters, and we presume it will continue to do so. Current market volatility has caused many of our supporters to scale back or withdraw their support altogether," said Brisa de Angulo, co-founder of A Breeze of Hope Foundation, a non-profit that prevents childhood sexual violence in Bolivia and winner of the 2020 Elevate Prize.

To help social entrepreneurs scale their impact for the second year in a row, The Elevate Prize is awarding $5 million to 10 innovators, activists, and problem–solvers who are making a difference in their communities every day.

"We want to see extraordinary people leading high-impact projects that are elevating opportunities for all people, elevating issues and their solutions, or elevating understanding of and between people," The Elevate Prize website states.

Founded in 2019 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Deitch, The Elevate Prize is dedicated to giving unsung social entrepreneurs the necessary resources to scale their impact and to ultimately help inspire and awaken the hero in all of us.

"The Elevate Prize remains committed to finding a radically diverse group of innovative problem solvers and investing unconventional and personalized resources that bring greater visibility to them as leaders and the vital work they do. We make good famous," said Carolina García Jayaram, executive director, Elevate Prize Foundation.

The application process will take place in two phases. Applicants have till May 5 for Phase 1, which will include a short written application. A select number of those applicants will then be chosen for Phase 2, which includes a more robust set of questions later this summer. Ten winners will be announced in October 2021.

In addition to money, winners will also receive support from The Elevate Prize to help amplify their mission, achieve their goals, and receive mentorship and industry connections.

Last year, 1,297 candidates applied for the prize.

The 10 winners include Simprints, a UK-based nonprofit implementing biometric solutions to give people in the developing world hope and access to a better healthcare system; ReThink, a patented, innovative app that detects offensive messages and gives users a chance to reconsider posting them; and Guitars Over Guns, an organization bridging the opportunity gap for youth from vulnerable communities through transformational access to music, connectivity, and self-empowerment.

You can learn more about last year's winners, here.

If you know of someone or you yourself are ready to scale your impact, apply here today.

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan
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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

RODNAE Productions via Pexels
True

The past year has changed the way a lot of people see the world and brought the importance of global change to the forefront. However, even social impact entrepreneurs have had to adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

"The first barrier is lack of funding. COVID-19 has deeply impacted many of our supporters, and we presume it will continue to do so. Current market volatility has caused many of our supporters to scale back or withdraw their support altogether," said Brisa de Angulo, co-founder of A Breeze of Hope Foundation, a non-profit that prevents childhood sexual violence in Bolivia and winner of the 2020 Elevate Prize.

To help social entrepreneurs scale their impact for the second year in a row, The Elevate Prize is awarding $5 million to 10 innovators, activists, and problem–solvers who are making a difference in their communities every day.

"We want to see extraordinary people leading high-impact projects that are elevating opportunities for all people, elevating issues and their solutions, or elevating understanding of and between people," The Elevate Prize website states.

Founded in 2019 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Deitch, The Elevate Prize is dedicated to giving unsung social entrepreneurs the necessary resources to scale their impact and to ultimately help inspire and awaken the hero in all of us.

"The Elevate Prize remains committed to finding a radically diverse group of innovative problem solvers and investing unconventional and personalized resources that bring greater visibility to them as leaders and the vital work they do. We make good famous," said Carolina García Jayaram, executive director, Elevate Prize Foundation.

The application process will take place in two phases. Applicants have till May 5 for Phase 1, which will include a short written application. A select number of those applicants will then be chosen for Phase 2, which includes a more robust set of questions later this summer. Ten winners will be announced in October 2021.

In addition to money, winners will also receive support from The Elevate Prize to help amplify their mission, achieve their goals, and receive mentorship and industry connections.

Last year, 1,297 candidates applied for the prize.

The 10 winners include Simprints, a UK-based nonprofit implementing biometric solutions to give people in the developing world hope and access to a better healthcare system; ReThink, a patented, innovative app that detects offensive messages and gives users a chance to reconsider posting them; and Guitars Over Guns, an organization bridging the opportunity gap for youth from vulnerable communities through transformational access to music, connectivity, and self-empowerment.

You can learn more about last year's winners, here.

If you know of someone or you yourself are ready to scale your impact, apply here today.