Mental illness ups and downs

Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

During meetings of the Carriage House board, we talked so often about the need for an elevator in the building, I’d lost track of the ongoing fundraising, architect’s plans for the project and its construction.

Yet 15 years later, here was the announcement of the dream come true on the front page of the morning Journal Gazette. What’s more, the headline over the story was “above the fold.” Such placement adds to the significance of the story, as this veteran journalist was quickly to note.

For many of the hundreds of Carriage House members, the news of the installation of the elevator means they’ll be able to get to the second floor where you can find a snack bar, a bank for members, a clerical space and video studio.

No more dealing with two flights of stairs for members with physical handicaps – or just not able to join in what’s going on in that floor.

My understanding is that the elevator also reaches to the lower floor. That’s where members can do their laundry, rather than enlisting a friend to help out.

It cost over $200,000 to construct and install the elevator in this early 20th Century mansion on a hill. The funds came from private donors and community development block grants.

But this is so much the story of the Fort Wayne clubhouse, one of several hundred such rehabilitation programs worldwide, the granddaddy being the Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City.

The program is simplicity itself. It’s organized around the work-ordered day. Twenty or so members meet daily to assign jobs, from housekeeping to yard work to clerical jobs. Lots of members hold temporary jobs in the community. That includes businesses, law firms and restaurants. For years, my Unitarian church has hired a number of club members for custodial work.

In our family, my son John has been on the faculty of the International Center for Clubhouse Development – the ICCD it’s usually called. This oversight group based in New York’s Fountain House sends him and a paid staff to spend a few days at another clubhouse around the country.

These faculty visits help the local program identify strengths and problems, measured against long-accepted standards for effective programs to help persons with a mental illness get back into the mainstream of community life.

Which brings me to the big story at Fort Wayne’s Carriage House. It’s not the installation of an elevator, as important as that is. The big story is played out daily in the lives of the more than 1,500 members.

For them, the clubhouse is a place to develop life-long friends. It’s a place to brush up on job and life skills. It’s a place to begin to recover from this most devastating and seemingly hopeless disability.

Clubhouse members have skills and knowledge and friendship to share with others in their community. What a wonderful mission for this remarkable institution called the Carriage House.

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