It’s easy to be smitten with former First Lady of Colorado, Jeannie Ritter. The petite powerhouse is utterly enchanting and authentic; and you see that when she speaks in public on behalf of her passion for mental health awareness.
In spite of some advisers who wanted her to take on an issue with “more universal appeal,” when Jeannie became Colorado’s First Lady, and with her background of teaching Special Education in the Denver Public Schools for 10 years, she knew that mental health would have to be her official cause. Jeannie felt it was time to bring attention to mental health in Colorado and said: “Considering that one in five people struggle with mental illness and that a mental health issue will likely impact each and every one of us at some point in our lives, the time is right to challenge misperceptions and help change the conversation around something that is so very common and incredibly important.”
With mental illness being common in every community, after her term of serving as First Lady ended, Jeannie decided to take a position with the Mental Health Center of Denver (founded in 1989, MHCD is a private, not-for-profit, 501 (c) (3), community mental health center, providing treatment and prevention services to the residents of the City and County of Denver) as their official Ambassador helping to educate the public about issues surrounding mental health and the reality that “recovery is possible and does happen.”
After being home with her kids for 13 years, the Ritters' are now "empty nesters." Jeannie thought not having the kids around all the time would be hard, but now finds that some time for herself - and spending time with her husband making their marriage a priority - has been a positive transition. Jeannie says their years in the public arena were the best, but always being in the public spotlight was difficult at times.
Today, Jeannie Ritter still misses the kids she worked with when she was teaching. And - being true to form for this sincere, beautiful "Joan of Arc" like soul, Jeannie says about the world we live in: "We are all in this together..."
Let’s get a “First Lady of Colorado” question out of the way. What was your favorite role and greatest accomplishment as the First Lady? My time as a "First Spouse" gave me the opportunity to advocate on behalf of Mental Health. I feel so fortunate to have a chance to build off of that work.
What is your role with the Mental Health Center of Denver right now? I am in a full time position as their Mental Health Ambassador and am tasked with 'changing the community norm on behavioral health.’ My quest is to normalize mental health issues by helping to educate the community about mental health and the role the (nationally recognized) Mental Health Center of Denver plays in helping to enrich the lives and minds of people living with mental illness.
How would you describe your life at this moment in time? Both Bill and I are very blessed to be able to work in areas that are of intense interest to us. This includes lots of travel, a fair amount of evening engagements still, but both the issue of renewable energy for Bill and mental health for me are issues in which our community is now engaged and enlightened.
Besides your family, what are you most grateful for? Being supported by a loyal and rich group of friends and a neighborhood that sustained me during my most challenging times.
What is a favorite hobby or activity you often like to participate in? I still enjoy cooking for the family and the kids as they come in and out of the house now - we never can do enough of that!
Whenever I hear you speak, you are so spontaneous, funny, and endearing - what in your view is the key to staying so real and approachable (which you very much are…)? Thank you! I’m genuinely interested in people and their well-being. It’s hard for me to follow a “canned script,” so I speak what’s in my heart.
What was it like being a “navy brat” as a child? It was all so memorable living in several cities through the years on both coasts. Being near the water was always fun!
Was it hard to make friends and get to know people as often as you moved around? I am so lucky that my roommates from college became and remain my greatest friends.
Aside from your work in the mental health arena, what else are you enjoying about your life right now? Watching our four children become adults and seeing how they move in the world is no doubt a source of great joy for Bill and me.
In addition to MHCD, what other groups are you working with now? Luckily there are many organizations, civic groups, community foundations, faith based groups - even large corporations that are stepping up to help change the conversation on mental health.
Who is your hero? My hero, and the real hero in bringing awareness to mental health issues, is Roslyn Carter. She has been a leader on this for over 40 years. My chance to be able to connect with her on this work has been one of my greatest "take-aways" from my time as a first lady.
What does the future hold for the fabulous Jeannie Ritter; what do you still want to do or accomplish? My focus will continue to be on mental health and to improve how services are delivered and continue to bring much needed attention to an issue that was often not discussed or ignored. I will continue the mission of removing the stigma associated with people seeking mental health care. People should be able to talk about their issues without fear or embarrassment.