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Toyin Dong Spoke on Mental Illness of Mom, Ronettes Singer Estelle Bennett, at Brooklyn TLC Shelter
Toyin Dong, daughter of Ronettes "Be My Baby" singer Estelle Bennett, talked with Brooklyn Community Services' TLC Women's Shelter on Growing Up with a Mother Affected by Mental Illness. Famed girl group toured with Rolling Stones and Beatles in 60s
TLC, located in the Brooklyn Women's Shelter in East New York, supports homeless women who are recovering from severe mental illness and dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, or trauma. BCS provides counseling, temporary shelter and assistance to secure permanent housing.
During the 1960s, Estelle, her sister Ronnie and cousin Nedra were the legendary glam girl group the Ronettes. Raised in Spanish Harlem, Estelle was known as studious and fashion savvy. She graduated from Manhattan's George Washington High School as valedictorian and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The Ronettes became famous for their riveting sound and ogled for their beauty. Their 1963 mega hit "Be My Baby" (produced by Phil Spector, who later married Ronnie) continues to be ranked on Billboard's Chart as the #1 Girl Group song of all time. By 1964, the Ronettes were the opening act for Rolling Stones' Britain tour and in 1966, they teamed up with the Beatles for a phenomenal 14-city tour across America. Estelle's fabulous lifestyle included special friendships with rock icons Mick Jagger and George Harrison before marrying Toyin's father, Ronette road manager Joe Dong.But with all of her enormous success, Estelle suffered from mental illness and it deeply affected Toyin throughout her childhood.
Toyin grew up in Brooklyn, where she spent the majority of her childhood in a one bedroom apartment with a mentally ill mother who was unable to care for her. It wasn't until she was an adolescent that Toyin began to discover that her mother had been a music legend. Now, she is uncovering the many layers of her mother's journey through fame and misfortune.
Currently, Toyin is working on a new book that talks about her childhood and journey to build up her self-worth, persevere, and achieve her goals. Now, she sees her mother as a personal gift and shares her story as a way to continue to heal and empower people who are impacted by mental illness.
"All my life, my mother was swallowed by mental illness," said Toyin. "Mental illness rendered my mother completely withdrawn denying her the capacity to revel in her accomplishments. As a little girl, my young soul searched for a mother yearning to belong and be seen, but I was cast as an invisible motherless child."
Today, Toyin is a proud mother of four sons. The oldest is in his first year of college. "At an early age, I experienced the praise associated with academic achievement. I began to develop my self-esteem and worth through scholastic accolades," she recalled. "This determination for academic success rewarded me with scholarships to private school and matriculation all the way through graduate school."
In 2007, Toyin was thrilled to escort her mother to the illustrious Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and witness a happy Estelle and the Ronettes receive this legendary honor. Two years later, Estelle died at age 67 of cancer, compounded by living with anorexia and schizophrenia, and at times being homeless. "My purpose is to share my journey which includes the gift of my mother's story," said Toyin. "I move forward paying homage to my mother who was unable to reclaim herself after succumbing to mental illness."
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About Brooklyn Community Services
Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) celebrates the strength of the human spirit, and throughout 2017, we continue to celebrate our 150th Anniversary. Our mission is to empower at-risk children, youth and families, and adults with mental illness or intellectual disabilities to overcome the obstacles they face, as we strive to ensure opportunity for all to learn, grow and contribute to ONE Brooklyn Community. To achieve this mission, we offer comprehensive and holistic services: early childhood education; youth development services and educationally rich after-school programs; counseling for at-risk families; treatment, recovery and job training to support the life goals of adults living with mental illness; person-centered rehabilitation and community living support for adults with intellectual disabilities and disaster recovery case management and relief services. BCS also seeks to increase public awareness of the impacts of poverty on individuals and the community at-large. With a staff of over 500 and over 25 sites around the borough, BCS serves 18,000 people every year. Today, BCS is one of the longest serving nonprofit, non-sectarian social service providers in New York City.