Seeming poised in a loose-flowing sweater, Jordana Steinberg put down her Starbucks cup and picked up a microphone.
The 20-year-old daughter of former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who revealed her wrenching story of childhood mental illness to The Sacramento Bee last summer, opened up again Saturday, this time to a room of teenagers hoping to make their own marks on the world.
The father-daughter duo served as guest speakers at a convening of the Grants Advisory Board for Youth, a student-led committee that awards 20 grants each year to teens with a plan for improving their communities. They recruited Jordana Steinberg for their guest speaking slot this year in the hope that a young audience would relate to her, said Kit Taylor, a senior at St. Francis High School and communications chair for the board.
“Mental health is important for everyone,” Taylor said. “Her story is one of struggle, so it’s inspiring to anyone to overcome what they have and become better for it.”
Jordana Steinberg fought long and hard to find a way to live with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, a recently recognized mental illness characterized by a persistent, angry mood that erupts when provoked. After years of bouncing between medications and residential treatment facilities, Steinberg is mostly stable – living on her own and studying psychology and communications at Sierra College.
She opened her speech by telling teens the gritty details of her illness – the screaming, the violence, the bouts of self-doubt – and ended by emphasizing her recovery, and how important it is to believe in oneself even when the cards seem stacked the other way.
“I want you to know that falling down is OK,” she told a crowd of about 100 students and their supporters. “Major screw-ups are what help each of us grow. They are what make us unique because every one of our experiences is different.”
During her years of treatment, Jordana Steinberg used to dream about telling her story in public to help others. Now she does it as much as she can around school and work, regularly adapting the version of her complicated journey depending on the crowd.
The students in the room Saturday were all there because they’d been chosen to receive a $500 grant from the Sacramento Region Community Foundation, the philanthropic nonprofit that makes the Grants Advisory Board for Youth possible. The board, made up of 23 teens, chooses 20 top projects from a larger pool of project proposals to receive funding from the foundation. The winning projects cover everything from community beautification to environmental conservation to health.
Steinberg said she thinks what the students are doing is “awesome,” and hopes she encouraged them to take positive first steps.
“It’s important to find power within yourself to be able to make change,” she said. “And if I can do it, they can do it. I hope I taught them that their decisions and their choices and their lives matter.”
The theme of this year’s event was “Creating a Wonderful Community.” Rick Jennings, of the Center for Fathers and Families, which partners with the foundation and also submitted a grant proposal, said the speaker fit the theme well.
“The whole concept of creating a wonderful community says what are the issues that are out there that have not been addressed?” he said. “These are the future leaders, the current leaders right now in their schools. I think they’ll take away the message that we are servants, committed to serving and filling in the gaps where we can.”
Darrell Steinberg, who advocated for mental health legislation during his time in state government, said he’s glad his daughter is sharing her personal testimony so widely, especially with youths. Steinberg addressed the audience before his daughter took the podium.
“We must bring these issues out of the closet, and we must tell the stories of success,” he said. “We need to end the fear and the stigma. Telling the stories is not only powerful – it’s necessary. ... We then can create the momentum for more help, more resources, to make mental health a priority.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.