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Mental Health Association Rallies For ‘Mentor’ Stricken With Cancer

Pictured is Luis Rosa, a former certified peer specialist with the Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County. Rosa was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, and members of the organization have rallied to help him while he receives 24-hour care. Submitted photos

Luis Rosa has a way with words and people. That’s because many of those words — through his locally renowned quick wit — often make those around him laugh and feel at ease.

It’s that persona that made Luis an ideal certified peer specialist with the Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County. “Luis had a way of making everyone smile and lit up a room anytime he walked in,” said Jenny Rowe, the Mental Health Association’s chief financial officer.

Like others who either volunteer or work for the nonprofit organization, the Puerto Rico native struggled with substance abuse. Luis moved to Jamestown in 2006, but fell into depression that led to drinking and smoking marijuana following a decrease in the hours at his retail job and subsequent unemployment.

Luis eventually met Steve Cobb, then the MHA’s associate director, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. After taking part in several peer support meetings, he found the association to be “like a family” and participated in the work experience program.

This connection led to Luis’ hiring as a full-time recovery coach — a position that allowed him to encourage those with mental and substance abuse issues to seek assistance as well as finding shelter for those in need of a place to stay.

Members of the Mental Health Association are pictured in December 2019.

“I met Luis when he was referred to the MHA as a participant,” said Cobb, now the executive director. “I was struck by his commitment at that early point to recovery. Luis has a wicked sense of humor, loves practical jokes, and is so committed to recovery.”

Luis’ ability to connect with those in need, especially the Hispanic community as the Mental Health Association’s Spanish speaking peer coach, provided a boost for the organization. He was one of the original staff at the association’s Northern Chautauqua County program in Dunkirk.

“He was our go-to, to help anyone who needed emergency inpatient or detox services,” Rowe said. “He always answered the phone no matter what time of the day or night it was. He had the largest caseload, and helped make the MHA what is has become today, and helped build the relationship we have with UPMC today.”

Those efforts, however, largely ended in April 2020 after Luis was diagnosed with lung cancer. Instead of returning to his native Puerto Rico, the 56-year-old opted to stay at home where he now receives 24-hour care.

The diagnosis has been a devastating blow, Rowe said. “He was a mentor to me as he was to everyone he met,” she said. “We grew together as coaches. He is an inspiration of who I hope to be — his heart is huge, and he was always there with a listening ear.”

“Luis is amazing, awesome, inspirational, kind, thoughtful, funny, compassionate, loving, dedicated to his work, and stubborn too,” added Dorothy Carlson, a recovery coach at MHA. “I am so grateful for the life lesson that I have learned from Luis and will treasure his friendship always.”

The loss of one of their own was felt immediately. The Rev. Luke Fodor from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown provided a “grief session” with MHA staff to help co-workers who have long since become friends with Luis cope with his terminal illness.

Cobb and Carlson have taken turns spending the night with Luis, while other members of the staff send “I love you” messages through videos and songs.

“Someone goes over every day for lunch with him,” Rowe said. “There is a rotation of who goes over to see him. He is never alone. We want him to know how much he means to us until we don’t see him again. When he first became sick we even took turns in creating dinners and meals for him, until he was too sick to eat. Even now we will bring him anything he wants.”

Other members of the Mental Health Association were asked of Luis and what he meant to the community.

Sheridan Smith shared: “Luis was a person who saw humor everywhere and would constantly joke and try to make you smile. But, when it was needed, he could be incredibly serious.”

Added Justin Jimenez: “Luis and I talked for several hours and shared a lot about his life and experience. He shared a lot about his recovery and experiences with other people in recovery. Eventually, as a staff member, I have grown to appreciate Luis as a mentor who loves the people he worked for and with.”

The Mental Health Association is creating the Peer of the Year award, with Luis set to be its first recipient. Moving forward, the award also will be named after him.

In a 2017 newsletter, Luis was asked of being a certified peer specialist at the MHA. He responded, “If I had to start all over again, I would start here. … I like this place because I’m helping others. I encourage them: ‘I did it, you can too.'”

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