hope: an interview with Fran

by Jessica R., 17

“Hope is a blackbird that perches on the lamppost every night, wishing he was yellow.”

These lines open Fran Franco’s poem “Hope” in the Shore House/Project Write Now Anthology collaboration “Beyond the View.” When I spoke to Fran about her experience with mental health, especially during a pandemic, there was no better word to describe her. 

Shore House is a clubhouse for adults living with mental illness in New Jersey. Based in Long Branch, the clubhouse has a variety of activities for attendees to participate in, such as gardening, cooking, and lawn care. Fran has been involved with Shore House for five years now, both online and in person. She claims she isn’t the best representative of the place, but I beg to differ.

For Fran, getting along with the management of Shore House was important to her. “I got along very well with the director Susan Mazzeo. She’s really an incredible person and I miss her,” she said during our Zoom call. Shore House is under new management now, and while she gets along just as well with the new people, her first connection with Susan Mazzeo made all the difference.

Fran began attending Shore House after talking to her counselor through Children’s Psychiatric Center Behavioral Health Care (contrary to its name, CPC supports 9,000 adults and children through their mental health journeys). When I asked how she would recommend someone else to Shore House, she gave an overwhelmingly human response. “Oh my gosh, that’s really a difficult question,” she laughed. “I would say, ‘would you like to spend a day with me at Shore House? I found some really cool people to hang out with there.’” She bases her decisions on friendship and consideration for the other person before any kind of self-gain. Shore House is a place built on selflessness, a community of acceptance that prioritizes real human connection.

The conversation turned a little more serious when I asked her about her own experiences with mental health. In her true loving nature, Fran talked about someone else instead. “I was able to help someone profoundly one time,” she started. She was right. Fran had been talking to a friend of hers struggling with severe depression. He told her he would stare at the wall for hours sometimes, sitting in his own isolation. “And I told him, ‘what if you try something different? Why don’t you stare out the window or at a mirror or a painting?’ He said that helped him a lot.” That small change in scenery, an added bit of beauty to his life, was incredibly impactful.

It’s these kinds of practical solutions that can make all the difference to those struggling with mental health. Never clinical or judgemental, Fran just wanted to help, so she did. 

And Shore House helps her right back. Project Write Now has a writing program at Shore House that gives her an outlet for self-expression. Fran notes that even if she only gets one or two good sentences written during the session, she finds the creative process to be very therapeutic. 

And if you read her poetry, you’ll know she can write more than one or two good sentences. Her full poem, “Hope,” reads:

Hope is a blackbird that perches on the lamppost every night 
wishing he was yellow. 
He wanted to pretend that he was a world leader 
if he was yellow. 
He sets his hopes for tomorrow and tries to sleep. 
But when he wakes up, the raven finds the entire sky 
is not yellow, but green. 
Green like the sky in a Giorgio de Chirico painting. 
A thought crossing his mind is leaving 
to fly the green sky 
and travel with his lovely wings to the forest, 
Cheesequake State Park. 
There he will pray and have hope that maybe soon in the woods 
he’ll find the yellow of his dreams 
and become it.

She also explained how validating it was to meet other adults struggling with mental illness like her at Shore House. “I have a lot of trouble making friends and not being weird, but at Shore House, you can be weird! It’s all good!”

With Fran’s demeanor and willingness to help, it’s hard to disagree. 

Fran Franco knows how it feels to be different, how easy it can be to stare at the wall for hours, to not know where to go. But she also knows how one outreaching hand, one change of scenery, one invitation can change a life. She knows how to smile.

She knows how to hope.