By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, while most of us were still recovering from our Thanksgiving feasts, Bobby Vandrak gathered with his family as he prepared to do a 10-mile run around North Park Lake. Bobby wasn’t training for a marathon, nor was this part of his normal Saturday morning exercise routine. Bobby was running to make a difference. Before I share why he ran, let me tell you about who Bobby is.
I’ve known Bobby since he was four years old. I was pastor of his family’s church for 22 years, and they joined the church early in that time. I watched Bobby grow up from a four-year-old to a wonderful man. He and his family were heavily involved in the church.
They worshipped most Sundays together. He was involved in our children and youth programs, as well as our yearly youth mission trips. We were involved in our dynamic drama program, appearing in plays such as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Honk, School House Rock, The Sound of Music, and
even a review that included songs from
Rent and Hamilton.
Bobby’s family were steadfast believers in turning faith into action. His mother, Heidi, is a therapist. His father was a doctor at Jameson Hospital in New Castle, PA. Generosity and service were central to their lives. Whenever one of the kids turned 17, Heidi had a tradition: each could choose a mission trip that she would then take her or him on. Bobby chose to go to Mexico City, helping in a medical mission doing eye exams and treatment for the poor.
Bobby’s father, Bob, died unexpectantly and suddenly in 2015, which had an impact on Bobby. Bob was not only a great doctor, but also always willing to help anyone in any way he could. Quite often he would bundle the kids on a Saturday morning into the car to do something new and exciting or to go help someone in need.
I asked Bobby in a recent interview that we posted last week on YouTube how his father’s death impacted him (For the full interview, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnAil9S-52Y). Bobby said, “So with him passing away it showed me that with life you just have to keep going, you just have to continue to . . . I feel like I had a moment where I was like ‘I’m going to be bitter and sad and mad about this.’ But it really ended up turning into a switch of like, ‘I’m going to use this to the best of my abilities to make a difference.’”
This leads us to now. Bobby was diagnosed a few years ago with schizoaffective disorder, which is a really complex mental disorder where people can have elements of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders) and mood disorders (depression and/or mania). Each person’s course and symptoms vary, making it difficult to diagnose.
As you can imagine, receiving this diagnosis is traumatic. Who wants to hear that she or he has a serious mental health issue. Even the term itself, schizoaffective, sounds damning. Remember what Bobby said about dealing with the death of his father. He could become bitter and mad, but he chose “use this to the best of my abilities to make a difference.” He stopped drinking, which had been a form of self-medication, and chose to seek treatment, take his medication, and then use his natural gift for gab to be a positive influence to make people aware of mental health issues.
Recently he took another step toward health, which brings us back to his 10-mile run around North Park Lake. He decided he could use his illness and influence to raise money to help others. He set up a GoFundMe challenge for people to sponsor his run around the lake to raise money for Samaritan, as well as the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance.
He raised over $6000 that Saturday morning, which included $3000 for Samaritan. But he did more than that. He raised awareness of mental health issues with so many people. Over 200 people have watched his interview in just the week it’s been posted, and many more have been touched through his Instagram and Facebook posts about it. Even more, he used his own generosity to improve his own mental health.
Generosity, gratitude, enthusiasm, passion, possibility, joy, faith, service, and so much more make a difference in our mental and spiritual health. We are so appreciative of what Bobby has done for Samaritan, but even more for what he’s done for himself and others. By being generous in sharing with others his diagnosis, challenges, and response, he is leading others to discover how they can make a difference for those struggling with mental health issues. His gift, as well others’ gifts, to Samaritan are a tangible way to make people’s lives better.