She started CHEER Mental Health from her kitchen table and was a tireless advocate for improving the quality of life for local residents suffering from mental health issues.
Community leader Nelma Justin has died at the age of 90.
“There was something special about her,” said Carlene Brown, her niece by marriage. “She was such an easy person to love.”
Justin was just a teen when she began working for Caney Fork Electric, a utility which was also in its infancy. Justin was one of the first four women to work for Caney Fork and was recognized as such at the company’s recent 75th anniversary celebration.
She would leave Caney Fork in 1954 when she was hired as the second employee of Ben Lomand Telephone Cooperative. She would work there for 35 years until her retirement in 1989.
It was in the field of mental health where Justin made perhaps her most lasting contribution. Faced with the challenges of a mentally ill sister, she spearheaded efforts to bolster mental health care in this community.
“At the time, I thought she was the only one in Warren County who was having these problems because we didn’t talk about it then,” Justin told the Standard in 2007.
Justin continued, “For years there was nowhere to meet their needs. It was a very heart-wrenching experience to have this and not be able to do anything about it.”
So Justin took matters into her own hands and began organizing a group of concerned citizens in 1968.
“We didn’t have any money or a place to meet so I opened an office in my dining room,” Justin said.
Thus, the foundation for CHEER Mental Health was formed. Today, the organization treats over 2,000 patients a year and has 30 employees. It handles all types of issues ranging from addiction to behavior to mental health problems and has a 24-hour crisis line.
“Nelma was the voice who said we can do this,” said current CHEER manager Bryan Herriman. “Many people across the community helped her, and she’ll be the first to tell you that, but she was certainly a driving force. She was a vital part of CHEER for many, many years.”
Herriman said Justin remained active with CHEER through the years and attended the organization’s monthly meeting in November. Her knowledge of mental health issues became so renowned, she even made trips to Washington, D.C., where she served on President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health.
“She was very concerned with how the mentally challenged could be productive citizens,” said Brown. “She even went to D.C. to help draft legislation pertaining to the mentally ill and had her picture made with Rosalynn Carter.”
Mrs. Justin donated her body to science. High Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.