Told she could never work or go back to school because of her psychiatric condition, Diana Capponi earned a Centennial College diploma and went on to become a dynamic community leader anyway.
Today, Capponi, a 1984 Correctional Worker graduate, has won the 2001 Premier's Award in the category of applied arts -- community services. She is one of six Ontario college graduates recognized for their outstanding contributions to their communities and to the province. The annual awards were established in 1992 by the Ontario Council of Regents to mark the 25th anniversary of the college system.
A psychiatric survivor is defined as someone who has survived the Ontario mental health care system. Capponi's story is one of remarkable determination and perseverance in the face of enormous obstacles. She struggled against addiction and the trauma of growing up in a violent, abusive home. She spent much of her early life in and out of mental health institutions. Marrying young, she gave up custody of her first child on the advice of a psychiatrist, a decision that has caused her lifelong regret.
For Capponi, the break came after she took part in a YWCA 'change' program, which brought her to Centennial, where she enrolled in the Correctional Worker program as a single mother with a toddler.
"Academics was totally foreign to me -- I had left school in Grade 10," she recalls. "When I went to Centennial, I just bloomed. I had experienced so much of what was taught, I could challenge my professors and change what was taught. It was a great thing for people to listen to me and encourage me."
The respect she received from professors and students was a startling and welcome change for the better. "The patience and the time people spent with me were great," Capponi says. "No one made assumptions about me because of my background. I felt supported at Centennial. Going to college was the most significant thing I could have done to change my life at that time. Without that, I'd still be in and out of the system."
Today she is executive director and the driving force behind the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses. Acting as a business incubator, OCAB aims to create real employment opportunities for psychiatric survivors. Thanks to Capponi's tireless dedication, 1,000 people who were written off by the system have found work and reclaimed their lives.
Capponi is a hands-on leader involved in research and policy advocacy to government programs and charitable foundations. She counts among her responsibilities education, marketing, communications, partnership-building, personal support and encouragement for people in survivor-run businesses. An outspoken advocate for the value and abilities of psychiatric survivors, her philosophy and belief in the value of work for survivors is now recognized in current Ontario Ministry of Health policy for rehabilitation and recovery.
Capponi's life work has already been recognized by numerous organizations, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation, the Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, and the City of Toronto. She accepted the Premier's Award on Feb. 18.
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