Rachel A. Freund, with a tenacity for organizing and passion for the underdog, promoted the causes of people with mental illness in ways few others envisioned or tried in recent years.
Through advocacy and educational work with a variety of organizations, including the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County, the Disability Voting Coalition and Let Our Voices Be Heard, Ms. Freund ensured that more people with disabilities were registered to vote, were able to speak up for themselves and could have more optimism about their futures.
Over the years, hundreds of people trying to overcome mental health problems visited legislators in Harrisburg to advocate for their issues, because Ms. Freund had organized the bus trips and led them there with guidance on how to present their case.
"She empowered disenfranchised people to be able to influence decisions that impact their lives, and the importance of that is huge," said Michelle McMurray, chief executive officer of Mental Health America Allegheny County, formerly known as the Mental Health Association.
Ms. Freund died Wednesday at the residence of Good Samaritan Hospice in Marshall, more than two years after being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. A resident of Ross, she was 54 and had continued working on disability issues until recent months, though her illness and chemotherapy treatments had slowed her down.
Originally from McCandless, Ms. Freund was known for her constructive energy through three decades of work in the disabilities field, ever since obtaining a bachelor's degree in special education from Slippery Rock University.
She had a variety of counseling, educational and case management roles during stints at Mayview State Hospital, Community Human Services, Allegheny County's Department of Human Services and the Renaissance Center rehabilitation program before finding the position she enjoyed best: coordinating education and outreach for the Mental Health Association.
There, Ms. Freund immersed herself in fieldwork bridging the gap between those with mental disabilities and those with physical impairments and building a network of government officials who would interact with her and her constituents. And she was viewed as a champion by many of those on whose behalf she was working.
"She had a talent for making everybody in the room feel special. She was able to find a gold nugget in what everybody was saying, and she was so good at encouraging people to be active and involved," said Paul O'Hanlon, a lawyer for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.
He worked with Ms. Freund on numerous issues and credited her with a large role in increasing voter registration among Allegheny County's population with disabilities and in winning an increase from the state in cash supplements to low-income personal care home residents.
Ms. Freund received several local and state awards, including a lifetime achievement award last year from Mental Health America. Penny Perlman, an Avalon resident who was a colleague of hers at multiple organizations, said affection for her was so strong that people would cheer instead of simply clap when Ms. Freund's name was mentioned on such occasions.
"She didn't even realize how good she was," Ms. Perlman said. "She would be up against great odds, but never get discouraged and never give up."
Her second husband, Paul Freund, said she was like that in fighting her disease as well. She was a longtime kayaker and bicyclist who inspired others with self-made greeting cards she artistically produced while battling cancer.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Freund is survived by three sons, Nick Buls of Harrisburg, Paul Freund of Mt. Lebanon and Jake Buls of Dormont; a brother, Jeff Moore of Cranberry; and three sisters, Rebecca Linn of Nederland, Colo., Sherry Floyd of Prospect and Carole Kalmbach of Harmony.
Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Boylan Funeral Home & Cremation Services, 324 E. Grandview Ave., Zelienople.
A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday in the English Lutheran Church, 200 E. Grandview Ave., Zelienople. A celebration of life service will be held from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at the CLASS Community Service Center, 4638 Centre Ave., Oakland.
Memorial contributions may be made to Gilda's Club Western Pennsylvania, 2816 Smallman St., Pittsburgh 15222.
Gary Rotstein: email@example.com or 412-263-1255.