ROB FACES CHALLENGES, SHARES PASSION FOR AEROSPACE
Rob Lovell was never like other children. He was born in 1957 with organic brain damage.
It would be years before his condition was finally diagnosed as a combination of Asperger’s Syndrome, schizophrenia and epilepsy.
Lura and David Lovell were told this child would never be able to walk, write, speak well or read.
Lura did not accept that fate. She taught Rob to read and write and sought out the best places for him to go where he could thrive. It was an arduous uphill battle. Back then there was little knowledge of mental illness and few resources to support families who were dealing with heartbreaking challenges.
Rob was born in Illinois and lived in New Jersey for nine years before the family moved to Toledo when his father founded the Coulton Chemical Company in 1969. Rob ultimately graduated from high school at age 20 from Mary Immaculate School, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame in Toledo.
Today Rob is 57 and lives on his own in a condominium in Tucson with assistance. He likes Tucson better than Toledo because “you don’t have to worry about the weather changing all the time,” he said.
Rob Volunteers at Pima Air and Space Museum
Since 2006 Rob has volunteered several days a week at the Pima Air and Space Museum, accumulating more than 3,500 hours of service.
By the age of 12 he was avidly reading everything he could find about the space program. He watched every space shuttle launch and has photographs autographed by astronauts he’s met. Rob is also the go-to source for any detail of rock-and-roll music.
Over the years mother and son made their way through a maze of neurology, psychology, psychiatry and special education options. In 1960, Lura joined the Association of Retarded Children and was instrumental in starting a preschool program for mentally disabled children at a local church.
“We knew he had problems right off the bat,” Lura later recalled. “That was difficult because we didn’t know how to help him. There wasn’t much information about kids like Rob so we had to make it up. I had a child development degree and was a stay-at-home mom so that was my job – to do the best I could for him.”
Rob was their third child. Steve and Ann were older and Sara was the youngest.
Lura Leads Way for Families Dealing With Mental Illness
In Toledo Lura became a zealous advocate for those with mental illness and their families. She joined the board of the Zucker Center, an agency serving children with emotional and developmental issues, then the Lucas County Mental Health board. She co-founded the Toledo Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which led to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She supported the Family to Family educational program that became a national model.
“I realized how important it was for families to get information about their family member who was ill – and it wasn’t coming out of the mental health system or out of the psychiatrists,” Lura said.
Rob’s sister Ann recalled, “After high school the family had to find a place for Rob. Those were some of the hardest decisions.” He went to a series of boarding institutions in several states. Some were fine. Others were right out of the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Rob once told friends watching the film on television “you’re watching it – I experienced it.”
Rob vividly recalls how he was treated – being dragged downstairs, punished for being over medicated, being left in the “quiet room” for 11 hours and not being allowed to use the bathroom. Sometimes phone calls to his mother were prohibited. Staff members lied to Lura, saying they didn’t know where Rob was. There was swearing, insults and sexual innuendos.
In Florida he was over medicated and put on a bus to Toledo. David met him at the station. Rob got off the bus looking like a zombie. His dad’s eyes welled with tears.
David Develops Model for Supportive Adult Housing
After the challenges of finding suitable living accommodations for Rob, David and Lura decided to find a way to provide supportive housing for other adults with severe mental illness. They were founding board members of a nonprofit in Toledo that became known as Neighborhood Properties. Dave and two other businessmen led the acquisition, rehabilitation and organization of the first 40 units. Ultimately the program expanded to 450 housing units.
The institutional system at the time did not know how to treat people with mental illness.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Asperger’s was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Though progress has been made, there are still stigmas around mental illness and challenges to receiving treatment.
Rob has worked for grocery stores, a mailing house and a music store. He’s organized libraries for a church and a family member. He’s also had setbacks, including a nervous breakdown in his forties, where he was isolated, didn’t eat and his weight dropped to 116 pounds.
Today Rob’s life is fairly stable. He’s lived in Tucson since 2004 and is passionate about his regular work at the Pima Air and Space Museum. His mind is crammed with details and vivid memories. He clearly adores his family. Reminiscing at his favorite restaurant, his eyes light up and he relaxes. When he’s had enough talk, he stands up and says, “I’m done.”
Rob Speaks Out With Gratitude
Normally reticent, Rob surprised everyone at his mother’s celebration of life events in Tucson and Toledo in the fall of 2013. He spoke before hundreds of people for several minutes, sharing specifics of how much she did for him and how she came to his rescue time and again. He is keenly aware that because of his loving family, their commitment and good fortune, he is well cared for – unlike many other people dealing with mental illness.
Lura and David not only helped make life better for their son, but also implemented change that helped other individuals and families dealing with mental illness. Their zeal is carried forward through mental health grants from the Lovell Foundation over the past 20 years – including more than $1 million to the mental health agencies that Lu helped establish and $118,500 for the housing nonprofit that Dave launched for adults with mental illness.