Why I love the Carriage House

Carriage House
Carriage House

I’ve been a fan of the Carriage House here in Fort Wayne, Indiana even before my son John became an active member. That was more than a decade ago. I was still writing for The Journal Gazette. With editorials I championed the creation here of this research-based rehabilitation program for persons with mental illness. Retired in year 2000, I was invited to join the board. The Carriage House, like hundreds of these clubhouses worldwide, is modeled after the city block-size Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City.

Monday’s noon-hour board meeting found me reflecting on all that the program has meant to so many people. Every weekday, dozens of people show up to participate in the running of “the house,” taking care of the property, fixing and serving a big lunch, keeping track of members, and just visiting with friends. (Building relationships the most therapeutic of all.) My son John, along with so many others, has lugged furniture and boxes so people could resettle in a new apartment. He’s joined them for outings at ball games and picnics. Some have returned to college. Others studied for and passed the GED test.

I’d guess most of the board members have figured out that this is one social program that works. Word surely has gotten out in the community. At the meeting Monday it was announced that our November “Dancing with the Fort Wayne Stars” fundraiser brought in over $190,000. In addition to foundation grants and help from Park Center, the community mental health center here, it looks like the Carriage House should able to continue serving folks the rest of 2013.

We still don’t know whether the new state administration in Indianapolis will let the Carriage House tap Medicaid funds for this nontraditional program that keeps people out of the hospital and so many back into the mainstream. Some states manage to make this happen for their clubhouses. Yet so far, and with so many Carriage House friends working to get the state’s backing, we remain in a kind of limbo.

I’m hoping our incoming governor, former U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, will see the profound value in programs such as this one. Other clubhouses around the state would benefit just as much as ours in Fort Wayne with Medicaid support. But I know our board members. They won’t give up. They’re the true believers. We believe in the director Andy Wilson and his amazing leadership. We believe in the promise the Carriage House represents for persons afflicted with a major mental illness. We can see it makes a difference.

We just mean so much to so many people. Giving up on long-term funding is not an option. Period.

After I had finished the black bean soup, fresh fruit and sipped on coffee, we heard introductions from a new, enthusiastic staff member and an intern working on her master’s in social work. Then board president, Patsy Dumas, conducted the meeting, as always in her friendly, respectful manner. We voted then to change the bi-laws and give her another term. We heard reports on finances. We heard about the status of job development.

I don’t recall anyone mentioned the tragic killing of first graders and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Or the court hearings starting that day in Colorado on the fate of the killer at a movie theater in Aurora. In both cases, these young men no doubt suffered from a major mental illness. Illness that was neither understood by the families properly treated. Carriage House board members understand that persons with mental illness aren’t dangerous. Even untreated, they’re likely only to be a danger to themselves. The mere existence of the Carriage House and other such clubhouses stand as a testimony to that truth.

In that role, clubhouses have a mission that extends beyond the walls of the building. They help educate the community about the facts of this disability. It is treatable. That’s the message. Lots of people with a mental illness can be found excelling in all the professions and every trade and at every job. I’ve known university professors, engineers, physicians and teachers who struggle daily with depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders. I’m sure Lincoln wasn’t our only president who fought his private demons.

I’ve seen up close how much the Carriage House has helped my son. He’s one cool, caring guy. His life is just one of countless Carriage House success stories. You can see why I’m a fan.

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