Not just mind games for these minds

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

I thumbed through the minutes at the board meeting. I lost my place a couple of times. Director Andy Wilson gave his report and an update about the status of the bid to get regular funding through the state.

Then we heard from a new Carriage House member who related her personal story about a long struggle with mental illness and how the Carriage House has helped her. That’s when I was reminded why I was there and what this program has meant to so many hundreds of people in our community afflicted with this disability.

Without a doubt, it’s been a lifesaver for my son John.

Years ago, they made me a founding board member. I wrote editorials for The Journal Gazette to promote the Carriage House. As a founder, my tenure on the board has no set term limit. I’m there until I get too obnoxious and they kick me out. But I keep myself in check. I’m just so grateful that nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Steve Glock and his wife Joyce took the lead in locating the huge property on Lake Avenue and brought the clubhouse and this amazing rehabilitation program to Fort Wayne.

Like the hundreds of other such certified programs in the world, our clubhouse helps those who battle mental illness find work in the community, develop lasting friendships and study for the GED or prepare for college classes.

Just keeping the house going has provided work experience for hundreds of members. They prepare and serve lunch, keep the building clean and the property as neat and care-for as the professional office building next door.

You might find a club member working at Parkview Hospital, doing office chores at a business, stocking shelves at the main library downtown or sorting mail at a law office. At the oldest transition job at my Unitarian church, a club member does the custodial work, making sure the building is clean, the chairs in the sanctuary and social hall properly arranged each week.

To just hint at the numbers of people with this disability in our town, consider that since the Carriage House was established in 1997, it has served over 1,500 clients. Daily attendance runs around 65 to 70.

This is one program where a member can drop out and still be welcomed back months or years later as a full-fledged member. Paid staff don’t order people around. Everyone, staff and members, are regarded as equals. That’s the clubhouse philosophy. House meetings discuss the issues of the day and everybody is invited to contribute. Decisions are by consensus.

It’s impossible to do justice to the Carriage House story, no matter how many times and in what venues I tell it. There’s the “Dancing with the Stars” fundraiser in the fall, modeling after the hit TV show. There are the overnight visits from other clubhouses to learn why the Fort Wayne program has such a good reputation. There’s the support from other agencies such as Park Center, our community mental health service, as well as the local chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Illness.

Years ago, my son John was selected to join the International Center for Clubhouse Development, which dispatches him to other clubhouses to evaluate and make recommendations for ways to improve. The ICCD even has sent him to Hawaii for one site visit. All in a good cause, but I’m sure the trip was a boost to his mental health.

As I sat through the Carriage House board meeting the other day, I felt proud to be a part of such a program, if only on the sidelines. But it’s hard to be at a meeting or enjoy the huge “Dancing with the Stars” gathering at the Grand Wayne Center and not be reminded that our clubhouse only reaches a fraction of those who suffer from mental illness.

There’s nothing like it. I’ve visited the granddaddy of clubhouses, Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City where it all began. That visit told the most important story: a clubhouse saves lives.

I’ve seen it in our town. I’ve seen in it in our family.

I don’t mind a bit sitting through an hour-and-a-half Carriage House board meeting.

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