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Diana Capponi during the filming of the 1999 documentary Working Like Crazy.

©Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Beaten and molested as a little girl by a brutal father, repeatedly told that she was stupid and worthless, addicted to heroin by her early 20s, Diana Capponi emerged from years of psychiatric treatment stronger at the broken places. Determined to help society's most vulnerable and damaged individuals, she created work opportunities for women and men who struggled with mental illness and faced unemployment as a result. A home, a job and a friend, she believed, was what former psychiatric patients most needed.

Persuasive and determined, adept at getting governments to support her vision, she was instrumental in the development of successful businesses employing ex-patients. Then, headhunted by Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, she created hundreds of jobs for former (and current) patients within that sprawling psychiatric treatment and research centre. She insisted that they be real jobs paying real money.

By the time she died in Toronto General Hospital on Sept. 21, her ideas had been folded into Ontario's mental health policies and were influencing policy in other jurisdictions.

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It is an astonishing achievement when one considers her beginnings. Diana Michele Capponi was born in Montreal on Feb. 22, 1953, one of five children and the youngest daughter of Michael and Bernice Capponi (née Cluff). Her father worked in aircraft production at Canadair and Aviation Electric when he was not terrorizing his wife and children.

"The story of my family is one of continuing tragedy, filled with psychiatric wards and labels, suicide attempts, addictions and too many failures to count," wrote Diana's sister Pat Capponi in her memoir Upstairs in the Crazy House. "We were driven crazy – every curse, every blow, every corrupted touch ended up distorting us, breaking us, shaping our separate destinies."

Anything could provoke Michael Capponi's fury. He beat his children for not eating their supper or for eating too much; for not knowing the times tables; for talking or for saying nothing. "A single fork found dirty in the drawer," recalled Pat Capponi in her book. "Everything in the kitchen – plates, pots, cutlery – emptied out and thrown on the floor, the five of us dragged out of bed, beaten and forced to wash and dry everything again … finally released to bed as the sun rose."

Diana dropped out of school in Grade 10, convinced by her father that she was brainless. After her parents were finally divorced, she went to India to get as far away as possible from Montreal. There, at age 20, she started injecting heroin. Later she told her sister Pat that heroin, for the first time, made her feel comfortable in her skin.

Back in Montreal, now an addict, she had a disastrous early marriage and gave birth to a baby boy, Christopher, whom she put up for adoption when he was two – a decision she later regretted. Her mother, not knowing how to control Diana's erratic and dangerous behaviour, sent her to Toronto where her elder sisters Terry and Pat were already living, Pat in a group home.

"Diana, after a couple of years, also got into a group home here. She was hooked on heroin and she was also starting to suffer from mental illness," recalled her sister Pat. Diana later likened herself to "a human garbage can" during this period.

Terry, the eldest, was to die of an overdose of prescription pain medication, likely a suicide. A brother, the youngest of the five children, died of AIDS at Casey House.

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In 1981, Diana gave birth to a daughter, Julia, in Toronto, and this time she was determined to raise her child. She spent five months locked up in rehab at CAMH, fighting her demons while leaving her daughter with friends. When she came out, she lived in the same run-down group residence as her sister Pat, who explained: "She could keep Julia with her there. The father also had an addiction issue. We had a nursing aide and some good people gave us a playpen and supplies. We lived in Parkdale in a home with 70 crazy people. They were three houses really side by side. It was an eyeopener for her that such places existed."

While she was shaking off the grip of heroin, Ms. Capponi attended a program at the YWCA for women who wanted to change, which gave her the impetus to enroll at Centennial College in the policing program. "She wanted to be a corrections officer to do it right," recalled her sister. Diana graduated in 1984. "Simply finishing Centennial was astonishing – that she had a brain and her professors respected her intelligence was a surprise to her."

Ms. Capponi later told an interviewer: "No one made assumptions about me because of my background. I felt supported at Centennial. Going to college was the most significant thing I could have done to change my life."

After graduating, however, she discovered that her name was in the police database as a former drug offender, making it difficult to get a job in corrections. She went to work instead at Nellie's, the downtown shelter for battered women and children, founded by the late June Callwood, who became an inspiration.

In the early 1990s, Ms. Capponi left Nellie's for management work at Fresh Start, a cleaning service run by psychiatric survivors since 1989. That led her to start OCAB, the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses (now renamed Working for Change). It eventually operated four enterprises including the cleaning service, the Raging Spoon Café and catering company, the landscaping service Green Thumbs, which maintains street planters in the Parkdale neighbourhood, and A-Way Express Courier service. All the couriers at A-Way have mental health issues, as do the employees of the other businesses. By some estimates, under her leadership OCAB provided jobs for about 1,000 people previously considered unemployable. Some of her workers were the subject of an NFB documentary, Working Like Crazy.

She obtained government grants from both the city and the province for OCAB to start these businesses; then they had to make a profit.

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"OCAB was all about changing people's attitudes about [psychiatric] survivors' ability to do jobs," says Paul Quinn, who was the long-time director of the Gerstein Centre in Toronto, a small non-medical crisis centre for mentally ill people. Ms. Capponi did some overnight shifts there while still at Nellie's, and he was so impressed with her, he later put her on his board of directors.

"The best thing about her was her joy in the work and her encouragement of the workers," Mr. Quinn recalls. "The people who worked at OCAB or Fresh Start could maybe do only three or four hours of labour a week but she would praise them as though they had done 40. She celebrated their successes."

Hired away by CAMH 11 years ago, Ms. Capponi became co-ordinator of Employment Works, a recruitment and retention initiative within the institution for people with mental health and addiction challenges. Among other achievements, she created the Out of This World Café at CAMH, entirely staffed by former psychiatric patients. She reportedly helped 330 patients find work within CAMH, about a 10th of its workforce.

She never lacked for ideas. An unrealized project was a museum about the history of mental illness that Ms. Capponi wanted to create within CAMH.

Her own business cards, recalled her friend Fiona Crean, had the initials FMP after her name: "I asked her, 'Diana, what is this? I don't know this degree.' And she said, 'It stands for Former Mental Patient.'"

Ms. Crean, who is the Ombudsman for the City of Toronto, said Ms. Capponi made an impact on the larger community: "Diana treated everyone the same and had the utmost respect for people. I brought her in from CAMH to train public servants [at city hall] how to deal with people with diminished capacity and mental illness. That grew out of a difficult case I had.

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"She had a massive impact, but if you said that, she'd say 'Don't be silly' – she was very self-effacing."

Ms. Capponi found the loving and practical-minded partner she needed 17 years ago when she met Brenda Needham. Ms. Needham worked at the Bank of Montreal in networks and systems.

"We met at a fundraiser for a homeless shelter and I asked her out the next week," Ms. Needham recalled. "We moved in two months later, and bought our first house eight months after that. Diana did not know about mortgages. She thought you had to have all the money at once. Later she became quite interested in real estate."

In 2003, they got married and had a wedding reception at The Raging Spoon on Queen Street West, the café-restaurant that Ms. Capponi had helped to create.

She collected a host of awards and Ms. Needham noted her spreading fame: "She was consulted by people from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Vancouver, from across the country. I remember a delegation arriving from Japan to talk to her. Once she was invited to speak to psychiatrists in Amsterdam – I went with her on that trip."

The marriage lasted six years. "Diana had no life – she worked all the time. We sold the house and split up in 2009 but lived in adjacent apartment buildings. We loved each other and took holidays together but we had no shared life," Ms. Needham recalled. It was she who took Ms. Capponi to medical appointments, tests and procedures that found her to have diabetes, and later, just two days before her death, long-untreated breast cancer that by then had metastasized to the liver.

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Diana Capponi leaves Brenda Needham; her daughter, Julia; grandsons Quentin and Julian; sisters Sandra and Pat; and her beloved dog Bob.

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