By Christine Allen
Three charming, male 20-somethings sit in a university dorm room. It’s a typical November weeknight in blustery Champaign, Illinois, as Patrick Taylor, Alex Vassiliadis and Nate Perez work on assignments and study for exams. From the silence, Nate releases a long sigh.
“Sup, Nate?” Pat asks, without looking up from his textbook.
“Nothing,” Nate replies, as he taps his pen and stares at the ceiling.
“Is something wrong?” Alex asks.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is…long. And complicated. And painful. Nate’s mother lives with borderline personality disorder, and it’s a constant, daily, uphill struggle to get her to treatment. Nate himself also lives with mental illness of his own—anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. He’s never told Pat and Alex any of this. Until tonight.
Nate feels relieved after sharing his story, and then something truly amazing happens: Pat and Alex open up about their experiences with mental illness too. It turns out that when Alex was a senior in high school, his mother had an unexpected psychotic break; meanwhile, Pat had attempted to take his own life. Stigma had kept them silent.
The guys went on to discuss the status of the mental health industry in the U.S. and the silence and shame surrounding mental illness. They know they want the silence to end, but they don’t know how to help. Alex always harbored a desire to launch a philanthropic effort for mental illness awareness, so the conversation shifts to idea-pitching and brainstorming. Nothing stuck.
Then, Pat offers: “Let’s take my chicken car out for a cross-country road trip?”
The Hatching of a Great Idea
It started as a joke. “Yeah, we’d drive it around the country this summer!” “And we’d tell our stories and give presentations!” “We’d call it ‘The Mental Illness Awareness Tour! #MIATour2016!” The guys laughed.
But somewhere along the way, the laughing stopped, and they started making moves. “We started making phone calls, we started having conversations, we connected with NAMI Champaign and NAMI Illinois, and everyone thought it was a great idea,” Alex said. “And then it got to the point where people were expecting things from us—and one day it was like: ‘Oh my God, this is happening.’”
Before they knew it, they had three corporate sponsors (Penske Truck Rentals, Jimmy Johns Sandwiches, Campus Living Villages), and the summer following that fateful November night, they were on the road.
4 Wheels. 3 Guys. 2 Months. 1 Purpose.
“If we were to stand on the sidewalk and ask people walking by ‘Do you have a moment to talk about mental illness?’ They’d look at us weird and keep walking,” Alex explained. “But with the chicken car, they come to us.”
The guys described to me how people approach the car when they stop at gas stations and Jimmy Johns across the nation—confused, but happy (and usually quick to come up with some kind of chicken joke). “What is this chicken car?” they’ll ask. And that opens the door to allow the guys to talk about the tour, and why they’re doing it. “When we bring up the topic of mental illness, everyone generally has a story that they share with us—whether it be about themselves or family members. I’d say 99% of the people we’ve talked to have been affected at some point in their lives.” Alex said. “It’s just so much easier getting someone to talk about the topic with something so weird as the icebreaker.”
For two months in the summer of 2016, Nate, Pat and Alex drove their ice-breaking, head-turning chicken car across the continental United States and shared their stories at presentations along the way. Although the chicken car had a sizeable following on social media and the guys drummed up local interest and the occasional news story in the communities they passed through, they’ve remained humble. “I don’t think we’re accomplishing anything going into these communities for two hours to share our stories. The real difference is going to be with them. We’re trying inspire them to have conversations in their social circles, maybe connect with their NAMIs,” Pat envisaged. “Personally, I would love for people to sit down to dinner and talk about it with their families. Like, if we share our stories, and then a father goes home and tells his depressed son my story, and they talk about how I reacted to my situation and the alternatives [to suicide]… I think that would be the ultimate goal for me.”
What’s most striking about Nate, Pat, and Alex is how blasé they are about their accomplishments, leaving only a razor-focus on mental illness awareness: “I mean, we’re not really that skilled—we’re just three guys out there trying to encourage people to focus their ambitions on this cause,” Pat said.
“Just three guys.”
If only there were more “just three guys” lounging around a dorm room, openly discussing mental illness and how to break its stigma. Just three guys innovative enough to come up with such a brilliant marketing and awareness campaign. Just three guys willing to coop themselves up in a chicken car for an entire summer vacation. Just three guys vulnerable enough to open up to thousands of people across this nation about their experiences with a very taboo subject. And just three guys inspirational enough to ignite real change.
Our cause would only be so lucky.
Visit www.miatour2016.com/ to learn more about the trip, and follow the guys on Twitter (@ChickenCar1) and Instagram (@miatour2016).
(L-R) Alex Vassiliadis, Nate Perez, NAMI CEO Mary Giliberti, and Patrick Taylor stand with
the chicken car outside the NAMI National Convention July 9, 2016
“The people we’ve met…when I see them standing in front of me and they’ve gone through abuse, addiction, suicide attempts, I have the utmost respect for them. They’re the strongest beings that I’ve ever met. It’s the complete opposite of the ‘weak’ stereotype associated with mental illness.”
— Alex Vassiliadis
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