Penny Schnitter Frese

Penny Schnitter Frese

Bachelor of Arts in English '68

Penny Schnitter Frese uses the word “serendipity” to describe her reconnection with Daemen College, after a quarter-century’s worth of separation led her on a career odyssey far removed anything she envisioned as a teenager enrolling at Rosary Hill, and simultaneously joining the Sisters of St. Francis’ novitiate.

And, even though Penny’s reunion with her academic roots in fall 2004 was happenstance, the 1968 English graduate couldn’t be happier with the outcome. It was more like “Welcome Home,” even though her undergraduate time on campus was both limited and constrained.

The how’s and why’s of Penny’s return to Buffalo and campus are integral parts of her life and career as wife, mother, helpmate in her husband’s career as a nationally renowned mental health expert, teacher, and advocate for the early diagnosis and treatment of juvenile mental illness. She has also been witness to serious, but treatable, mental disorders in six of her nine siblings, her husband, their three children, and his daughter from a previous marriage.

In between, Penny has found time to direct at least one play a year at a community theater in Akron, Ohio, not far from the family home in Hudson.

Her inspiration

The homecoming began in fall 2004 when Penny’s husband, Dr. Frederick J. Frese, was invited by Daemen to deliver a talk, “Recovery from Mental Illness: Myths, Mountains and Miracles,” on behalf of the college, Erie County’s Anti-Stigma Task Force, and several other local mental health organizations.

“Dr. Charles Sabatino, a humanities faculty member, invited Fred, but didn’t know I was an alum. It was kind of a fluke — I call it serendipity — and Fred has a very good reputation in his field,” Penny casually understates.

Dr. Fred Frese is a psychologist who spent 15 years as director of psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital, one of Ohio’s largest psychiatric hospitals, before retiring in 1995. He also served as clinical professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and the Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine. Now, Dr. Frese is coordinator of the Summit County Recovery Project, serving recovering consumers in the Akron area.

He also lectures on mental health throughout the country and abroad, has authored numerous articles on the subject, and is featured in a documentary film, “I’m Still Here: The Truth About Schizophrenia.” He and Penny have produced several widely distributed training videos on various aspects of mental illness.

Dr. Frese knows first hand of what he speaks. In 1966, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while serving in the Marine Corps and was involuntarily hospitalized at various times over the next decade. Despite the disability, he majored in psychology at Tulane University, earned a degree in international business management at the American Graduate School of International Management, Phoenix, and was awarded Master’s and Doctoral degrees in psychology by Ohio University, Athens.

“That’s where I met Fred and my life was turned completely upside down,” Penny says laughing. At the time she was completing requirements for a Master’s degree in Fine Arts at Ohio University, where she ultimately earned her Ph.D. in the field.

But, instead of teaching English  as well as drama and the performing arts as a vowed member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, Penny became an extension of her husband’s career. She would build a level of personal expertise in her own right, particularly as mental illness impacts family life.

Her focus is upon the impact of mental illness in pre-puberty youngsters, and the need for early diagnosis and beginning a lifetime regimen of remediation before schizophrenia permanently disrupts the quality of a person’s life and potential. In that, she has drawn upon the experiences of the four children she and her husband raised into successful adulthood, despite the affliction.

While mental illness such as schizophrenia isn’t directly transmitted from one generation to the next in the manner of AIDS, it is hereditary in the sense that a propensity toward high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease runs in some families.

“These are brain disorders and doctors can identify areas of the brain that are not functioning properly,” Penny explains. The illness is a chemical imbalance between neurotransmitters in the brain “which allows the brain to send impulses from one neuron to another. It may send too many or too few, causing the imbalance,” she continues.

Fortunately for victims, neuroleptic medication has been developed — her husband has called it “a chemical crutch” — enabling them to function normally. “It is quite controllable so long as you take your medications. But, if you slack off on them, eat the wrong foods, or have serious stress,” problems can arise, she notes.

“We most commonly see the condition begin to manifest itself around puberty. But, we are finding traces of it early in life — that something’s just not right with a certain child,” Penny explains.
For example, when one of Penny’s daughters was a child she had the peculiar habit of constantly walking between an accompanying adult’s legs instead of side-by-side. “I don’t know how many times I almost fell over her,” she relates. By the time the girl, Claire, was in sixth grade “she was suicidal and violent.”

Depression is frequently an early symptom, turning up in the grammar school years and needing prompt treatment. “The Center for Disease Control identifies depression as the leading disease-related cause of death among people aged 14 to 25,” topping the combined total of the next seven top fatal diseases, she notes. “The only reason it didn’t show up more among younger people is that they usually don’t have the means to commit suicide,” she continues.

At the time, early 1991, Penny discovered little information was available about childhood mental illness. Through Claire, and later her other children, Penny learned that when childhood depression was discussed “the kids knew exactly what they were talking about. But, they didn’t know where or how to ask for help.”

And, when teachers or school psychologists would broach the subject about a particular child to the family, “the parents hit the ceiling.”

Penny and others in the mental health support community in northeast Ohio “decided it was time to educate everyone” about youthful mental illness and the available remedies.

‘Claire’s Story’

An initial step was Penny’s 1993 production of a video, “Claire’s Story: A Child’s Perspective on Childhood Depression.” The effort has become a full-blown mental health awareness program, called the “Red Flag Program,” that is used in every middle school. The program, funded by the State of Ohio, has components for students, in-service teacher training, and parent groups.

Drawing on her theatrical training, Penny developed a storyboard for the video, arranged for it to be shot through Kent State University’s production facilities, and helped secure the $47,000 for production costs. The video was narrated by Claire, a teenager at the time, so the intended audience could more easily relate to it.

“Told through the eyes of a friend, the story covers symptoms of depression and how to access help,” Penny recounts. “It’s done in children’s words so they can understand it better.”

Since the video has become outdated, with its corded landline telephones and typewriters, the program recently completed an updated version, entitled “Thick and Thin.” Claire, now a middle-school teacher in Elyria, Ohio, introduces the DVD with: “I made this when I was 13 for my friends. Fashions have changed but the information, and the need to get help, has not.”

Casting diverse actors is another update they made. “It gives African-American kids a chance to see themselves while at the same time getting the message to the minority community, which tends not to deal with mental illness issues as often. They’re more inclined to keep those things under wrap,” Penny relates.

Producing a modern version also enabled them to revamp the 10-year-old curriculum. “We drew on experiences and techniques that we didn’t have the first time around. Certainly we’re more knowledgeable about the importance of early intervention,” she says.

While schools are not required to identify youth with mental health problems, Penny says, the program can train teachers to pick up on symptoms and provide a safe and understanding venue for students to talk about issues that concern them.

“Teachers learn to recognize the symptoms and schools set up a protocol for finding help for the youngsters and for dealing with students who are in treatment. It is a ‘no blame’ scenario to help them recognize the signs of brain disorders,” Penny continues.

Today, Penny is what she called “a most-time consultant” to the program. Her work includes training teachers and in further program development. While the program —  available to all schools nationwide free in charge thanks in part to the Mental Health America of Summit County — has reached Arizona, Oregon, California, South Carolina and Iowa, Penny said it’s hard to quantify its impact. “It’s reached thousands and thousands of people,” she says. “We are very gratified that the issues we recognized have been seen by so many others and are supported.”

Her Journey

Penny can relate to those who struggle with mental illness since her own journey didn’t come easily.

Things started quietly enough for Penny in the 1950s, growing up in Buffalo’s working class, mainly German Bailey-Delavan neighborhood, and attending St. Gerard’s parish school. Enrollment in the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart followed. The Sisters of St. Francis then operated both Sacred Heart and Rosary Hill College.

In the early 1960s “It was very customary for Sacred Heart girls to attend Rosary Hill; it was kind of an extension of high school,” she continues. Penny not only made that transition but also joined the Sisters’ community of Stella Niagara at Lewiston as a novitiate.

“The sisters had a branch of Rosary Hill at Stella Niagara. You did two years of Rosary Hill in three years at Stella,” she explains, with the extra time devoted to the obligations of being a novitiate. Then, students moved to the Main Street campus to continue their Rosary Hill education, in what was called “the Juniorate.” Penny’s field of interest was drama, but because the college offered no such degree, she majored in English.

“But, instead of going to Rosary Hill, the Sisters sent me to Charleston Catholic (High School) in West Virginia to teach freshman Latin for a year,” she recalls. After all, Penny had taken two years of Latin at Sacred Heart.

“The school had gone through two Latin teachers in two weeks. The first one died and the second fell and broke her leg two weeks later. Then, I was equally unqualified to teach anything. I was barely 21 and I was terrified,” she says.

Penny persevered and eventually returned to the Juniorate to continue her degree program.

“It was very strict. We couldn’t watch TV and had to maintain silence unless we were spoken to. We were not encouraged to talk to or make friends with other students. They were much more worldly, and went out on dates. We could talk with them about classes but novitiates’ time was very limited in terms of mixing with others,” Penny says.

Shortly thereafter, the Sisters sent Penny back to Sacred Heart to teach English and theater in what would have been her senior year. Subsequent teaching assignments followed in mathematics — “It was little more than arithmetic,” Penny remembers — in New Jersey and again in Charleston.

“The rest of my college education was completed over summers and in night schools at various institutions, while I continued teaching,” Penny says. Finally, in 1968 — seven years after she started — Penny received Rosary Hill’s Bachelor’s degree in English, along with a concentration in theater.

Later, at age 29, she went to Ohio University in Athens for Master’s and doctoral degrees in fine arts. “The plan was that I’d return to Daemen and teach theater,” Penny says. “But, I met Fred in my third year at Ohio U.”

With most of her doctoral work completed, Penny left the Sisterhood in 1976, and the couple was married the following April, settling in Hudson, near Fred’s work.

Three children, Joe, Claire, and Bridget entered the family in four years, a family that included Fred’s daughter. Penny’s doctoral aspirations were put on hold until 1985 when her dissertation was completed.

Penny knew about Fred’s schizophrenic condition and how it had been controlled through medication before they were married, but his professional associates and friends were unaware of it until 1989 when Fred went public with the fact that he knew schizophrenia from the inside out, as both a trained professional and as a “consumer” of services to persons with mental disabilities.

“My heart just dropped,” Penny says, recalling an article in the American Psychological Association’s Journal discussing Fred’s “coming out” at an association convention in New Orleans. “In those days, you could lose your job, your friends, everything,” she says. “Instead, though, he received many, many letters of support and encouragement.”

It was just one of many traumatic experiences confronting Penny over the years. But, even though her on-campus time was limited, what she learned from the Sisters of St. Francis and at Rosary Hill carried lasting weight.

“What I learned at Stella Niagara stood me in good stead, particularly when my children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. As might be imagined, it was a very difficult time for our family. And, the academic rigors at Rosary Hill enabled me to know how to do a job right,” she adds, with reference to her work with mental disabilities.

“The academic integrity at the college gave us a higher perspective on life, and taught us that if something is not right, you can learn how to fix it,” Penny says.

Penny admitted that she hadn’t been back to campus since leaving the St. Francis community nearly 30 years ago, and all family members had left the area. But, she returned with her husband for his 2004 address.

“I was so favorably impressed; the values now are the same as then,” Penny says. “Those ideals are still being taught.”

She left with the realization that while the college had evolved into something vastly different from her undergraduate days, including a new name, different management and a vastly broadened curriculum, the program was considerably stronger. For example, “Colleges weren’t requiring theses when I went through,” she notes.

Son Joe is married and an engineer in Cleveland. And their youngest daughter, Bridget,  is a labor and delivery nurse in San Diego as well as working toward a midwifery degree.

While they eagerly await grandchildren, Penny and her husband have adopted an orphanage, the Ubumi Transit Home, in Kitwe, Zambia. They created a nonprofit, Children of Ubumi, three years ago after visiting Claire in Africa where she was working at an AIDS orphanage. Penny’s concern for her own child’s nutrition boiled over to the welfare of the orphans.

The nonprofit coordinated with the Seton Catholic School in Hudson, Ohio, that has set up a scholarship for two of the “aged-out” orphans to go to boarding school.

“I don’t think of it as charity, but as joining forces with people globally to work on global issues,” Penny states.

Not only does the arrangement boost the African orphans, but gives the American students a “global vision.” The Seton students produced a video of them singing that will be sent to the African children.

“They can see that other kids across the world care about them,” Penny says. “I never set out to be part of a nonprofit, but the thought that we can do that blows me away.”

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