Nelson Freed of Zoar is a busy man. He is the board president at Advocacy, Choices and Empowerment in New Philadelphia, where he works as an Ohio-certified peer supporter. He also is a National Alliance for Mental Illness facilitator for the ACE NAMI group, volunteers at Historic Zoar Village and is an internet sleuth.
Freed also has Tourette syndrome, a condition of the nervous system that causes people to have “tics,” which manifest as sudden twitches, body movements and unexpected sounds. In addition, he struggles with anxiety and depression. Many people would be overwhelmed by these conditions, but not Freed. He does everything in his power to help others who are struggling with physical or mental illness along their journey through recovery.
For this reason Freed was chosen to receive the 2021 Morgan Impact Award for Peer Advocacy from Peg’s Foundation, formerly the Margaret Clark Morgan Fund, in Hudson, Ohio. Freed received the award on Nov. 11 at a red-carpet, invitation-only event at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown.
According to the Peg’s Foundation website, Impact Awards honor individuals who demonstrate a commitment to reducing the stigma and improving the lives of people with mental illnesses. “The individuals recognized bring dignity, respect and friendship into the lives of many.”
Receiving a Morgan Impact Award places Freed among some impressive company. Past recipients have included best-selling authors, college professors and even a former Ohio Supreme Court justice.
Freed doesn’t really need an award, though, to make a lasting impression upon anyone he meets.
“Nelson is one of my favorite people ever,” said Todd Little, executive director of ACE. “He does a great job in helping lead the organization and keeping the board on track. As a certified peer supporter, Nelson provides mental-health assistance to folks and helps guide them through their own journey of recovery.”
Tammi Shrum, site director for Historic Zoar Village, said Freed is such a beloved guide for their Ghost Tours that many people return to take his tour a second time.
“Nelson is very deserving of this award,” Shrum said. “He volunteers not only as a tour guide in Zoar, but also with countless other organizations. He is a wonderful asset for Zoar and has a true passion for his community.”
From bullied to brave
For many years Freed and his family didn’t really know what was wrong with him. His verbal outbursts and physical tics made him a favorite target of school bullies.
One day his mother, who recently turned 97, was reading the Anne Landers column in the newspaper. Landers described the symptoms of Tourette syndrome, and it sounded just like Freed to his mother.
A physician confirmed his mother’s suspicions and diagnosed Freed with Tourette syndrome in 1987. Undaunted, he pursued and earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from Kent State University, graduating in 1993.
A native of Canton, Freed moved to Zoar in 2009, during what he described as a difficult time in his life. “I found people here who accept me for who I am and what I am,” he said.
Freed said he didn’t start volunteering in Zoar right away. “I had to become more confident and step out of my shell. I’m not perfect. I struggle every day, but I don’t struggle like I used to.”
“Nelson is a wonderful advocate for mental health and is always the source of a smile and friendly hello for everyone he meets,” Shrum said.
Little said, “Nelson is such a positive influence and such an all-around good guy that my kids call him uncle Nelson.”
Perhaps the inscription on Freed’s Impact Award describes him best. It reads: “Nelson Freed represents the heart and soul of what it means to be on the path of recovery and to fulfill the purpose of sharing that gift with others in need. His work to reveal the beauty and joy, not only in the world, but within every person, is a true inspiration.”
Freed is quick to point out that he shares the award with everyone at ACE. “It’s their honor too because it’s team work that earned it, not just me,” he said. “I’m just the average Joe, but the average Joe who made a difference, I guess.”