Community Service Hero: Lorraine Palardy

We asked you to tell us whom you consider a hero in education, community service, rescue, public life and health. From the nominations received, judges selected a finalist in each category. Here is our Community Service hero.

The day was December 4, 1996. José Bernard remembers the date well because it was her daughter Jasmine’s birthday. That morning, the 35-year-old Montreal woman and moth­er of seven children began to sob un­controllably. At Louis-H.-Lafontaine psychiatric hospital, where her husband took her, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The next three years were a descent into hell. José underwent electroshock therapy and took up to 60 pills a week, pills that turned her into a zombie. She lost her house, her husband and custody of her children. Finally, she ended up in a tiny apartment where, alone, she could mutilate herself at will- “my way of getting the bad out.”

Then, in 1998, she heard about the Fondation pour l’art théra­peu­tique et l’art brut du Québec (a Quebec foundation for art therapy and outsider art). This association, also called Les Impatients, offers art-therapy workshops to help people with psychiatric disorders. There, José began to cope with her problems through art and, by 2004, was able to stop taking medication.

“It saved my life,” says José, who now sees her children again. “All the bad, the hurt inside, I draw it, and it’s as if I were on the way to healing. Thanks to Lorraine Palardy, people like me are able to express ourselves.”

Lorraine Palardy has been at the helm of Les Impatients-it resembles the French word for the hardy impatiens flowers that flourish in the shade-for more than 15 years. Impatient also means “eager,” as in being eager to overcome or manage one’s mental illness.

Every week, Les Impatients offers  free workshops in art, music and drama therapy to anyone who wants to participate, whether they suffer from short-term mental-health issues or deep-rooted psychiatric problems.

Each year, no fewer than 250 people attend these workshops, held in workspaces across the city. Everyone leaving a workshop does so with a greater sense of well-being. One war veteran recovered his hearing and sense of smell, lost as a result of post-traumatic shock; a silent schizophren­ic began to speak again; a man with a history of serious psychiatric problems overcame his difficulties and enrolled in a university art history program.

The recipe is simple but proven: In creating, people express their anxieties, ease emotions that overwhelm them and channel outward what is hurting them on the inside.

“I have many testimonials from people for whom Les Impatients has made a difference, sometimes between life and death. Our workshops don’t make artists out of them, but they help people reconnect with themselves and get back their dignity,” says Palardy.

Palardy left behind the world of contemporary art to devote herself to the world of psychological distress. Why? Says Palardy, “I’m not a missionary. It was a combination of circumstances.”

After studying early childhood education as well as art history at university, this native of the Montreal suburb of Longueuil decided to open a contemporary art gallery with her husband in 1977. By 1988, she was president of the Contemporary Art Galleries Association. During this time, Palardy was involved in setting up a project called Les Femmeuses, an artistic event aimed at helping women who are victims of violence.

In 1989, the Montreal-based Mental Illness Foundation approached  her to stage a gala benefit to showcase works created by both Quebec artists  and by patients at Louis-H.-Lafontaine. The result was “À l’ombre du génie” (“In the Shadow of Genius”). For ten days, patients attended workshops at the psychiatric hospital.

They enjoyed the experience so much they didn’t want it to end. “The workshops were done, but the patients came back, sat on the floor and waited. To me, that was the trigger. Their creations didn’t look like I expected: They had produced striking works of beauty and realism. I simply couldn’t get over it.”

In 1992, Palardy became head of the newly established Fondation pour l’art thérapeutique. “As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to help people. I have a great deal of empathy,” says Palardy. “But my real work is financing, 80 percent of which comes from the private sector.”

Les Impatients, under Palardy’s direction, hosts “Parle-moi d’amour” (“Talk to Me of Love”), an annual benefit art exhibition and auction, and publishes “Mille mots d’amour” (“A Thousand Words of Love”), a boxed set of love letters and poems written by the Impatients as well as “celebrities” such as Leonard Cohen, Nancy Huston, Daniel Pennac and Fred Pellerin. The project is an excellent source of revenue and increases public awareness of the cause.

“If I do have a quality, it’s knowing how to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am. I am a unifier,” says Palardy.

She is an effective one, too, according to her son, Frédéric Palardy. “No matter what she undertakes, she always creates consensus,” he says. “Success may seem to have arrived on its own or to be improvised, but deep down, it has been very well thought out. She has a very solid basis.”

Named a Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Québec in 2007, she was eager to share this recognition with Pierre Henry, cofounder of Les Impatients, and with everyone who has ties to the organization. “Even though I am very proud of this award, my greatest achievement is still my three children,” says the grandmother of five.

Although, at age 63, Palardy is approaching retirement, she doesn’t see herself leaving the organization anytime soon. “What continues to drive me is knowing there is still work to be done to change the way people see mental illness.” There is a photo of a woman with downcast face and sad eyes-a participant in the workshops-that has pride of place on Palardy’s desk.

“This woman symbolizes everything that is mental illness: solitude, fear, distress and misery. And yet, at the same time, she can give a guitar concert that makes me shiver from head to toe. When I look at her, it reminds me that I do this work for people like her.”

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