By Caitlin O’Toole
When Elliott and Dianne Steele’s daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness in the 1990s, they found themselves trying to navigate their way through what they believed to be a flawed mental health care system.
“The system was broken for mental health services,” Elliott says. “There was a missing link and there needed to be a change. There were really no services that promoted rehabilitation. People were going to drop-in centers and day treatment programs, and they received therapy for their illness, and they were told that that they’d never be able to work again. Dianne and I knew we needed to do something more.”
The Steeles believed that there had to be a place where individuals with mental illness were celebrated as people and not treated like patients, a place for people to go that focused on wellness and abilities instead of illness.
So, in 2000, Elliott left his job in hospital administration and Dianne closed her veterinary practice and they co-founded Van Gogh’s Palette in Pinellas Park, Fla., which, about three years later, became Vincent House—a membership organization called a ‘Clubhouse’—aimed at helping individuals and their families challenged by the effects of mental illness.
“My philosophy was we’re going to raise expectations because for so long the expectations for people with mental illness were not very high,” Elliott says.
Armed with inspiration from NAMI, as well as a University of Massachusetts study that showed the Clubhouse model works, the Steeles based Vincent House on a recovery-through-work philosophy and modeled it after other Clubhouses in the United States. (There are now over 300 Clubhouses worldwide that have been certified by the International Center for Clubhouse Development. The first Clubhouse, Fountain House, in New York City, was founded in 1948.)
Vincent House aims to “assist, promote and celebrate individuals recovering from mental illnesses in their effort to improve social and vocational skills and become employed in the community.”
Transitional Employment, or TE, is one of many opportunities offered to members and is a way to obtain or return to paid work in the local community. Businesses enter into a partnership with Vincent House and members work at the employer’s place of business and are paid directly by the employer. The positions are demanding, real world jobs.
But Vincent House offers members so much more than employment.
“What we do is not ‘just’ jobs,” Elliott says. “Jobs are very important. We offer full rehabilitation. We have our members renew friendships, they can go to college, they find a purpose in life, and also they have the ability to help others in Vincent House because it’s a restorative community. We give [members] a reason to get up in the morning and a place to come. Our members have gotten their GEDs, we have members that are learning English, we have members that are learning to add and subtract.”
But members don’t have to go it alone; family members are welcome, too, and often come and join their loved ones for breakfast, lunch and holiday celebrations. “No one should be spending the holidays by themselves,” Elliott says.
“We call ourselves a ‘recovery to work’ partnership and that partnership involves family members,” Vincent House Executive Director William McKeever says. “Vincent House was not created to be just another human services organization or just another human services provider. It was created to fill a need in this community that doesn’t have a lot of mental health services and it was meant to help individuals and their families in the process. And I think that’s what makes us unique.”
Joel Corcoran is the Executive Director of Clubhouse International, a multinational non-profit organization that helps communities around the world create sustainable solutions for mental illness by developing and nurturing new and existing Clubhouses.
Joel, who began his career in the general field of mental health, saw people with mental illness treated like “prisoners and cast-offs.” He became frustrated at the lack of any kind of services or a support system for them, and believed that they could live outside the hospital and participate in the community.
“Clubhouses are focused entirely on helping individuals living with a serious mental illness be able to avoid the loneliness and isolation that comes along with the issues of mental illness and to provide meaningful, high-quality opportunities to participate in the community,” he says.
“Clubhouse International is about helping people living with mental illness know that they’re needed and wanted and loved and respected,” he adds. “We’re about having people reclaim their futures.”
People like Gayle Marchiniak. And Dyane Aroya. And Justin Shea.
Gayle came to Vincent House in 2006 after losing her job and battling severe depression.
“My life had spiraled out of control,” Gayle says. “My sister found out about Vincent House and she brought me there.”
Gayle began working on the newsletter in Vincent House’s business unit to build her confidence. Eventually, she accepted a job at a senior center. She also went back to college, enrolling in the human services program.
“I did wonderfully in that program. I loved it,” she says. “I had a 4.0, I had my own apartment, and Vincent House supported me through the whole thing.”
Gayle graduated with a two-year degree in Human Services in 2011 and received her bachelor's degree in 2013. She recently accepted a job at CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse), a domestic violence center that provides outreach and shelter services.
“I’m very excited about my future,” she says. “I’m really proud of my accomplishments.”
Dyane Aroya also came to Vincent House in hopes of making a change. Her life, like Gayle’s, had become overwhelming. She got pregnant at fifteen, lost her job, and began using drugs.
“I felt like a little child when I walked in the door,” she says. “They were there with open arms. If you come in here with a positive attitude, good things will follow. They put up with me, they taught me when not to speak, when to speak. They’re teaching me to be a lady again.”
“Without Vincent House I’d either be dead or I would have went back to using or no telling,” Dyane adds. “I’m so grateful that they’re here.”
When Justin Shea was diagnosed with a mental illness, he says he had virtually “lost” who he was.
“I was vibrant and personable and confident before the mental illness. I was really happy and talkative and outgoing. I had a great personality. But then when I was diagnosed I became quiet. I thought everything was over. It was a lot to handle.”
So, Justin came to Vincent House. The first couple of months, he observed. As time went on, and he became more comfortable, he got more involved.
“I would start working, trying new things; and the staff would engage me, and that would give me something to look forward to,” Justin says. “I’d get home and have a decent conversation—an intelligent conversation—with my parents. Before, I couldn’t even finish a sentence.”
Over the years, Justin started a TE position and worked as a security officer. He went back to playing piano—seven years after he had last played—and found comfort in music again. He played for the other members at Vincent House. Things started coming together.
Justin finished his degree in music last July. Elliott and Dianne were at the graduation.
“Now I’m working three jobs,” he beams. “I have a daughter, and a house. I know that even though I’m not [at Vincent House], I’m still there in spirit.”
Steven Manning is a member of Carriage House, a Clubhouse in Ft. Wayne, Ind. In 2001, Steven was going through an impossibly difficult time in his life. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had attempted suicide, and found himself homeless and begging for money on the street.
Like Gayle Marchiniak, Dyane Aroya, and Justin Shea, Steven also found strength in the Clubhouse community.
But it was a long process.
“At first, I would go there for the lunch. That was the attraction for me,” Steven says. “I thought, ‘If I can just get there for lunch that will be good enough.’ That was my initial goal.”
Steven, who has a background in TV and radio, eventually helped start an audio-visual department at the Carriage House. He even launched a once-a-week show called “The Carriage House Report,” which, he says, helped him “re-define” his production skills.
Steven eventually felt confident enough to take on a TE position. He worked at a law firm for a few months, and then started working part time at a Christian radio station.
“Everything started slowly but surely progressing very well for me,” he says. “Every aspect of my life has changed.”
Steven now owns his very own successful video production company. Last May, he finished his master’s degree in education. He also serves on the board of Clubhouse International.
“I don’t recognize myself sometimes,” he says. “I have to stop sometimes. Like today, I was sitting in a board meeting and looking around and thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”
Vincent House has come a long way since it was founded over ten years ago. Today, it’s in an 8,000-square-foot building with a graphic arts center, media center, and career and learning center. It represents a hardworking, passionate couple’s vision to make the world a better place for people like their daughter.
“Elliott and Dianne watched they daughter become warehoused in day treatment programs for eight or nine years and lose sight of her dreams and goals,” says William McKeever, “and just kept safe and sound. And that wasn’t a good enough goal for them to just watch their daughter become safe and sound for the rest of their lives.”
Hopefully, says Clubhouse International’s Executive Director Joel Corcoran, Clubhouses will one day be as commonplace in the world as YMCAs, senior centers and boys’ and girls’ clubs.
“Our vision is that Clubhouses are just as important as [those organizations],” he says. “And every community will recognize the need to rally around and support and protect them.”
“We can never stop believing,” William says. “That’s what Vincent house is about. The sign outside it says ‘celebrating recovery through work.’ And we celebrate. And we enjoy life together. It’s quite a place.”
“We can’t change the world,” Elliott says. “But we can change it for a lot of people with mental illness as well as their families.”
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