February 14, 2018 at 11:00am
Caroline Colby Bruder ’08

Playing It Forward

A page out of Professor Mary Garrison’s personal playbook might include the following advice on how to approach a new challenge in life: “Jump in with both feet.” Garrison has built a vibrant career by saying “yes” to new challenges and encourages her students to embrace their challenges through real-world experience. Garrison is professor of social work in MU’s behavioral sciences department, focusing her teaching and research on issues like homelessness, social issues and poverty. She is also a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor for students obtaining their master’s degrees in social work. Just in case all that wasn’t enough, Garrison’s first book, “Your Playbook for Beating Depression,” co-authored with former tennis pro Cliff Richey, was just released.

“I loved the challenge, even though I was terrified,” says Garrison of co-authoring her first book, “but I decided to just go for it. I tend to do that with a lot of things in life.”

Garrison’s enthusiasm for a good challenge developed over time and really took hold when she came to Millikin. Coming from a background of working in community mental health in Bloomington, Ill., Garrison found different ways to connect at MU.

“I was able to spread my net a lot wider,” says Garrison.

Garrison’s co-author, Richey, lives in San Angelo, Texas, so their collaboration was long-distance. When it was time to write her portions of the book, Garrison completely immersed herself in the experience, staying alone in a friend’s cabin for a week and writing almost nonstop.

“I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, because I didn’t want to have any commitments to anyone,” she says. She began writing on a Monday, and by that Thursday night, when she called Richey to give him a status update, she had written about 75 percent of the book. “It was a really freeing, incredible experience,” Garrison says.

In addition to working as a professor at Millikin, Garrison is also faculty adviser to a student service organization, Human Service Connection. The group takes semesterly trips to different areas of the country to gain fieldwork experience in the “helping” professions. On one memorable trip, Garrison took the group to Los Angeles to work with a homeless shelter serving residents of Skid Row, the infamous 50-block stretch with a population of approximately 10,000 homeless people. After their initial tour of Skid Row, Garrison and her students purchased hundreds of dollars’ worth of snacks to hand out to residents.     

In spring 2018, Human Service Connection is returning to Skid Row and will stay at Union Rescue Mission’s Urban Experience program. The program allows students to experience the hardships of homelessness firsthand, by living in tents at the shelter.

“It will be much more immersive,” Garrison says, adding that on their last trip, she and her students stayed in a hotel in Hollywood.  

Every other year, Human Service Connection travels to Oklahoma during the spring semester to work with the Pawnee Nation tribe. Garrison’s students learn about the services the Pawnee Nation provides its citizens, including domestic violence workshops and educational classes about diabetes. Garrison has grown so beloved by the Nation that its chief, George Howell, adopted her as his niece, surprising her with a dinner and special ceremony to mark the occasion.  

Garrison is also an active advocate within the Decatur community. She and her partner, Millikin Professor of Biology David Horn, are Decatur residents, and Horn was recently elected to Decatur’s City Council. In 2009, she was asked to help draft the city’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

Garrison also gives back to her community in more informal and personal ways. She spends two days per month at Oasis Day Center, giving manicures to homeless people. Garrison has found this to be a non-intimidating way to connect.

“It creates a trusting relationship. It’s such a humbling experience,” she says.

But the true testament to Garrison’s reach in the community and her dedication to helping others came at her book signing last April. During the event, a woman who had learned about the event from a newspaper article approached Garrison. The woman took the article as a sign.

“She told me, ‘I read about your book and just knew I had to come,’” Garrison recalled. She told Garrison that she had been struggling with depression for a long time. Garrison gave the woman her email address to put her in touch with social services.

“If I’ve helped one person, that’s my goal.”   

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