‘A Dining Room of Hope’

Aaron’s House event raises awareness, funds to help individuals living with bipolar disorder and depression and their families.

BY JENISE GRIFFIN
FLORIDA COURIER

TAMPA – Pamela Robinson paused at each table in the large waterfront dining room and offered a warm smile and heartfelt greetings to the many friends, family members and supporters who had gathered to raise funds for Aaron’s House, a foundation started in memory of Aaron, her only son.

Pamela Robinson (wearing white dress) is surrounded by her family after the program at the Rusty Pelican.

While the atmosphere in that dining room was lovely, light and inviting, the subject was heavy. A taboo subject for many. A topic often ignored.

That Tampa dining room was filled with people who knew Pamela Robinson’s pain and sorrow.

Some had walked with her. Family and friends knew of the sleepless nights, the agony she had lived through. A mother with a broken heart.

Aaron Keith Robinson died on Aug. 4, 2014, from an accidental gunshot wound after what’s referred to as a psychotic episode. Thirteen years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Top: At the May 7 event, Johnny Crowder encourages people to be vocal about mental illness.
Bottom left: Aaron Robinson attends his sister’s swearing-in ceremony as an attorney with mom, Pamela.
Bottom right: Kenneth Gant, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Bucs, talks about his depression.
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF AARON’S HOUSE)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes bipolar disorder as a chronic mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar have high and low moods, known as mania and depression, which differ from the typical ups and downs most people experience.

A safe haven
The May 7 dinner and program at Tampa’s Rusty Pelican restaurant, titled “A Dining Room of Hope,” was a fundraiser for Aaron’s House, called a safe haven for parents and caregivers of loved ones living with bipolar and depression.

Held during Mental Health Awareness Month, it provided valuable facts to attendees on living with a mental illness, recovery, stigma and advocacy.

Robinson, a Tampa Bay-based attorney, launched Aaron’s House in 2015 to advocate for individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression and their families by providing resources and support. She runs it with the help of a seven-member board of directors.

The non-profit organization provides temporary housing for families and members who need to get a short respite. Aaron’s House also has peer and family support groups as well as other support services.

“When people come to the group sessions, they are able to get a sense of community and see firsthand that they are not alone in their situation. That has such a positive and lasting impact that even if they come one time, it sticks with them,” Robinson told the Florida Courier.

‘A place of hope’
Robinson recalls the support groups she attended while Aaron was alive.

“I still remember them to this day. It is my hope that Aaron’s House blesses other people in the same way.

“‘Because we live, he lives’ is written on his tombstone, and I believe that sharing his story and helping others in similar situations is something Aaron would do.

“He loved his family and friends very much, and he would be proud to know that Aaron’s House looks out for the family members and caregivers of people living with bipolar,’’ Robinson continued. “It empowers family members so that they do not have to live in silence, shame, or stigmatization. It is a place of hope.

“Aaron always had friends at his house – it was the hangout spot. Aaron’s House aims to draw people into a comfortable environment where they can feel supported.’’

Diagnosed at 19
With a good treatment plan, most who are diagnosed can live well with the condition, according to medical professionals.

Aaron Robinson, a father of two, died in 2014 at age 31. (COURTESY OF AARON’S HOUSE)

Aaron tried. Robinson called her son a “ham” who had a very outgoing personality and natural leader. “So many people looked up to him.”

Aaron was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 19. The age of onset is typically in late teens and early adulthood.

“It was a huge impact on the family because we didn’t fully understand what bipolar meant and why it couldn’t be controlled,” Robinson related.

“We sought all kind of help for Aaron – therapy, medication, different housing arrangements. He hated the medicine because it made him lethargic, and therapy didn’t help because he could tell that most therapists did not genuinely care about him,” she noted, stating that Aaron could “read people very well.”

“I understood how he felt, but at the same time I wanted him to consistently try different forms of help so that he would get better, so it was a struggle. Aaron was 31 when he passed away on April 4, 2014.’’

It wasn’t suicide. His mother said that while joking around during a psychotic episode, Aaron dropped a loaded gun. It went off.

Telling their stories
For the first Dining Room of Hope in May 2015, Pamela called on her sister-in-law, actress Angela Robinson, to be the guest speaker. The actress, who grew up in Jacksonville and graduated from Florida A&M University, is best known for her current role as villainous Veronica in Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots’’ on OWN.

The event is co-chaired by Aaron’s dad, Donald Robinson. This year, Kenneth “The Shark” Gant, a former Tampa Bay Bucs player turned Polk County pastor, was the keynote speaker.

Gant told of living with depression and having “suicidal thoughts” while an NFL player. His life turned around when he shared what he was going through with then-Bucs coach Tony Dungy. He related how Dungy cried with him and offered his support.

Another speaker was Johnny Crowder, lead vocalist of Dark Sermon, a metal band, who talked about the need for those living with a mental illness to talk about it.

“I am mentally ill, and I don’t care if the whole world knows it. In fact, I hope the whole world hears,” he related.

Through his writings and songs, Crowder is trying to tear down the sigma associated with mental illness.

‘No color’
Motown Maurice, an actor and entertainer whose goal is to be a talk-show host in Hollywood, also was in the dining room on May 7. It was his second Aaron’s Hope fundraiser. Last year, Motown, who was raised in Tampa and now lives in California, was the emcee.

“Unfortunately, I never got a chance to meet Aaron. Since I met Pam, Aaron has become my spiritual brother,” Motown, as he prefers to be called, told the Courier.

“Aaron’s House is a cause that I’m willing to fight for. Mental health has no color or prejudice. It affects us all.

“It troubles me most whenever I watch the news and hear about the fatal killing of unarmed young men. In most cases, it’s a young African-American male by the hands of the police, only to find out later that the victim had a mental illness. There’s nothing more infuriating than knowing a mentally ill person senselessly lost his life during an episode.’’

Motown continued, “There was no need for the use of guns in that situation. Not only do police need reform, but families also need more awareness. That’s where Aaron’s House come in. That’s where I come in and hopefully over time, I can use my growing influence to fight the ignorance and stigma that’s associated with mental illness.”

For more information about Aaron’s House, send an email to aaronkrobinsonshouse@gmail.com, or visit the website at aaronrobinsoninc.org.

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