Very little information accompanied the notice about a memorial service for Patrick Neil Chilton.
A photo recent and, judging by the seatbelt, most likely a selfie taken in a car depicted a bespectacled man nearing the upper end of middle age. An image of a flickering candle appeared over the simplest, most straightforward of invitations.
Neil Chilton, a beloved (Forsyth Mental Health Association) support group participant, recently passed away this month. ... A celebration of life will be held (Wednesday).
Still, something about Chiltons face, the simplicity of the announcement and the fact that Andy Hagler, the executive director of the mental-health association, would be officiating indicated that Chilton, whoever he was, must have touched peoples lives.
I met Neil 10 years ago when he was not in a great place in life, Hagler said. He was depressed and homeless, living in his car. Not a very good place. And you wonder, Will he ever come back?
A few dozen people filed into a large, brightly lit room at the Silas Creek Parkway location of Hayworth-Miller Funeral Homes to honor Hilton.
Some were seated in groups of six or dispersed throughout the hall. Others came in twos or threes, and still others filed in alone. A few tears, smiles and more than a few laughs would be shared over the course of the next hour.
Clearly, Chilton had an impact.
Hagler, a soft-spoken man whos served as executive director of the mental-health association for more than 20 years, noted that hed only been asked to officiate at a funeral on two or three occasions.
Many of the thousands of clients the organization has helped through the years have passed away death spares no one but few stood out the way Chilton had.
Mental illness, in all its forms, can be difficult to discuss and acknowledge. Its hard to live with for those personally affected and those who love them.
When Chilton first appealed for help from the association, Hagler said, he was a man in need of a break.
Staff members stepped up in a big way. They helped him manage money, provided a road map for getting a roof over his head and, eventually, with securing a car.
And he kept coming to group, Hagler said.
Those peer support groups, non-clinical in that therapists and psychologists typically arent present, help individuals living with mental illness develop coping strategies and support.
Fancy terms for making friends, Hagler said. A lot of times, people with mental illness tend to live isolated lives.
Thats where Chilton found a calling and blossomed into one who could provide in kind that same sympathetic voice of experience.
In 10 years, he went from loneliness and despair to connected, Hagler said. Neil was one of the lucky ones.
Just how lucky became evident when Hagler invited his friends to take the mic and share stories.
Chilton died Jan. 15; he was 60. A coffee lover with a deep, infectious laugh, Chilton was prone to the occasional accident.
He wasnt mechanically minded, one woman said. I remember when he visited me in the hospital after one of my kids was born. He pulled the emergency cord thinking it was a light switch.
All the nurses came running in saying Are you alright? And there was Neil, Nah. Im just going to the bathroom.
One young man, whod met Chilton through the Green Tree Peer Support Center, a nonprofit established to help those with mental challenges, stood to sing in his honor but couldnt get the music to play quite right. So he recited lyrics.
Another man recounted an inside joke about a time a card table mysteriously flipped over during a game night.
That was something to see, he said.
Sometimes laughter can dry tears; the silliest moments can make for the best memories.
Then there was the poignant. A woman named Deborah, choking back tears, remembered meeting Chilton on her very first visit to a support group. She wasnt sure what it could offer her, and she was leery of telling her story.
I was afraid of opening up, she said. He gave me a reason to keep coming to the group.
Therein lies a key factor about Neil Chilton. He was smart, relatable and empathetic.
He was a gentle, sweet soul. A sweet spirit, Hagler said. Youre drawn to people like that. He never stopped wanting to help others.
We should all be so lucky to be remembered in such a way.
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