Tribute to Sue Gilbertson – Founder of M.I.K.I.D.

I first met Sue in September of 1995. The new M.I.K.I.D. CEO had asked me to be on the M.I.K.I.D. Board of Directors. I attended a M.I.K.I.D. board meeting because I wanted to see if this was a board, I would be interested in joining. At that time the M.I.K.I.D. organization had been given a room by NAMI in one of the houses behind the AZ State Hospital.

I remember Sue had the most wonderful smile, greeting all the current Board of Directors members and the three new prospective members. Myself and two others. At this time the M.I.K.I.D. organization was eight years old and had just hired their first CEO.

Shortly after my joining the M.I.K.I.D. Board, Sue was in my life. I was working in the mental health field, with children, and we had a lot in common since I had to visit a number of my clients in the State Hospital or community psychiatric hospitals. Often times I would run into Eric Gilbertson, and we would talk about his current hospitalization. Soon after my hospital visits and talking to Eric, I would get a phone call from Sue thanking me for taking the time to visit with him.

After a number of years of Sue and I attending conferences, and other mental health meetings, I would be invited to her home where I first met her husband Warren, and her daughter Wendi. Both Warren and Wendi were very supportive of Sue’s involvement in children’s mental health, but they always kept on the side lines and not in the public eye. Warren and Wendi were very involved in caring for Eric before he started to receive services and during his early years of treatment. When Eric became manic Sue and Warren would take the daytime care of keeping him safe and Wendi would take the night time. When Eric was manic, he needed to be active and the family would be outside walking him for hours until his manic episodes would subside. During these manic episodes Sue was making contacts and pushing the State to develop mental health care for children.

Sue made certain she knew as many of the “big boys” in the State mental health community. She knew all the RBHA (Regional Behavioral Health Association directors, the Legislative representatives serving in the State government and directors of the local mental health organizations. She kept in contact with many of them until her passing. Sue would attend State Congressional sessions, would introduce herself and thank each of them for their hard work and support for children’s mental health. When she was unable to attend an activity in order to make personal contact, I was sent in her place. She would send me with a precise message for certain people and I would have to introduce myself and deliver her message. She wasn’t looking for an answer, she just wanted the person to know why she was unable to attend the event and, of course, to thank them for their hard work and support in the mental health area.

Sue and I were the first Co-Chairs of the Sue Gilbertson Award that M.I.K.I.D. started in 1998. This award was to honor someone for their involvement and contribution to children’s mental health. She did not want to be honored at all but I convinced her she needed to be the first recipient of this award. The first honoree’s dinner was such a success we never had any problems convincing others to be a recipient of this award. No one ever has turned M.I.K.I.D. down to be honored.

By this time M.I.K.I.D. was an organization that was making a name for itself throughout the State. Sue has received many honors in her lifetime. The one honor she was most appreciative of was when Governor Rose Moffett appointed her to the AZ State Hospital Patient Rights Committee. Sue served on this Board until her passing in 2022. She served on so many boards I cannot possibly remember all of them. She was a long-time board member of ABC, the organization that evolved when ComCare was replaced, until her death. She was very active on the ComCare Board when ComCare was the RBHA in Maricopa County. She served on the Board for the Purple Heart Military organization since her husband, Warren, had been a purple heart recipient. After Eric’s death she founded the AZ Behavioral Health organization “Eric Gilbertson Advocacy Institute for Behavioral Health.” Sue was always available each year to present the years winner with the award. This past year, 2022, Wendi Gilbertson took over the honors of presenting the award.

Wendi reminded me awhile ago that she was the first M.I.K.I.D. Assistant Administrator and office manager, when M.I.K.I.D. was starting out. She served in this position from 1989 to 1991. She was a great help to her mother as M.I.K.I.D. moved from the Gilbertson kitchen to its own office.

Throughout the years of the M.I.K.I.D. growth we have had several offices. M.I.K.I.D. started out in the one room that NAMI gave us back in 1995. From there we moved into a rental area in the YWCA located on 7th Street and Willetta/McDowell Road. Then we moved to a much larger facility on 27th Street and Thomas. Finally, we moved again to our current location on 19th Avenue and Northern. Before Sue passed away, she was aware just how big M.I.K.I.D. had grown with all the satellites throughout the State and into Colorado and just how many families we are now serving.

As the years progressed Sue and I had become inseparable. Eric passed away due to many mental health complications. It was at that time Sue gave me a call and asked if she could join me on my trip to England. I remember after arriving in England and in the middle of the night we both woke up, 2am England time, and we started to talk about all the needed services AZ needed to implement to care for children with mental illness. A few years later her husband, Warren, passed away at which time I got a call from Wendi telling me she and her mother were going to join me on my vacation to Africa. Every time I visited Sue’s at home after that trip, she had the very tall wooden giraffe and wooden warrior mask displayed in the living room that she and Wendi purchased in Africa and had shipped home. This is when I first realized Sue was a shopper.

Sue was a children’s mental health advocate until the day she passed away. As she became more ill and unable to drive any longer, I became her driver taking her to her medical appointments. As soon as the appointments were done, she wanted to go shopping. Sue had to stop at many drug stores because she was always needing a certain color of fingernail polish. It had to be this specific color and brand. If one drug store did not have what she wanted, we would drive to the next closest pharmacy. We often had to stop at 2-3 different stores before she found what she wanted. After finding the polish we then had to stop at the grocery store because Sue had to have her bananas. She would get onto one of the scooters while I followed behind. Of course, she never stopped at buying just bananas. By the time I would finally get her home and into bed, by now she was tired, I had to put away all the groceries. Then I would sneak out of the house making sure I had locked her in.

Sue was a fighter even into her last days. She even called the M.I.K.I.D. Awards dinner from her ICU bed, advocating and thanking everyone present at the dinner for their commitment and hard work for children’s mental health. She had been hospitalized numerous times in the last year, and I always got a call from her telling me what room she was in. I made many trips to the hospital just to visit with her. It never failed when I would walk into her room, she would be on the phone making contact with someone and thanking them for their support.

I miss Sue very much. We spent 27 years together advocating for children’s mental health. We would talk several times a week, for many years, just checking in on each other to see how we were doing in our old age. I miss our weekly phone contacts and her infectious smile.

Written By:
Kathryn Hart
M.I.K.I.D. Board of Directors Member