My photo with this blog entry is pretty bad. It’s the back of a strip mall about a mile from my home. It’s part of a two mile walking route I followed every day last week. I chose to walk there because it’s isolated, so I can practice social distancing while getting my walk in. There are parts of my route that aren’t so grungy, but this is the longest stretch.
My walking last week wasn’t just for exercise. I was participating as a team member in the Tour de Vail “At Home”, a fund raiser for Vail Place, a remarkable mental health services organization here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Do the math, and you’ll see that, if I walk two miles a day for a week, it equals fourteen miles. This number isn’t arbitrary; the calculation is that for every dollar one donates to Vail Place, the wider community receives fourteen dollars of social services in return. So I’m not just walking for me, I’m walking for Vail Place. Friends and family pledged to support my walk, so I’m also walking for them.
I love Vail Place. It’s a recovery model that offers so much for people who are living with mental illness: housing, case management, care for mental and physical health needs, support for obtaining necessary resources and services, and two clubhouses to break the isolation of people living with mental illness.
My personal involvement with Vail Place began about six years ago when I started volunteering at our Uptown Clubhouse in Minneapolis. It’s a big old house that once housed workers for the cemetery across the street. Maybe that’s not so auspicious, but you’d never know it once you’re inside. Instead of the slow, steady loss of self- esteem that comes from being isolated at home with nothing to do except snack and watch TV, you can come to the clubhouse, read the paper, hang out with friends, sign up for a movie or some form of social recreation, have a nutritious meal at a minimal price, and generally enjoy life as a valued member of a community.
Mental illness takes away the feeling that we matter, leaving us feeling alone and useless. It leaches away our self-esteem, so that we feel that nothing we do or say makes a difference. In my recent book Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps, I write about how the clubhouse turns this around: “At Vail Place people living with mental illness are not patients: rather, they are members who have a stake in the future of their clubhouse. There are regular decision-making meetings where members and staff meet together to make the decisions necessary to run the facility.” Members matter and make a difference at Vail Place
Twice a day, at our “work ordered day” departmental meetings, the many jobs necessary for the smooth running of the clubhouse are divided up among members. Members aren’t required to choose a job, but over time most do. Jobs – from food preparation, maintenance, and cleaning to recording data, writing a newsletter, and planning activities – are offered with support and encouragement, so that most members soon settle into what they like to do. In addition, for some members this support of work extends beyond the clubhouse. We have an employment program that helps members transition from volunteer work in-house to paid employment at businesses and institutions in the community. Recovery of self-esteem and a sense of purpose through work are big parts of our life together at the clubhouse.
For now, because of COVID-19, much of this has changed. Our physical clubhouse has closed. But we are alive, well, and creating community on-line through Zoom. In addition, staff, members, and volunteers are constantly making reach-out calls to make sure all members know that they continue to be valued and that they are still part of a community that cares about them. New members have joined what is for now a virtual clubhouse. Though until we reopen the physical clubhouse there are some jobs no longer available to members, other jobs have been created as we’ve moved into the on-line world, where members who have social media skills and who want to learn them can contribute to the life of the clubhouse. We’re still doing our work of supporting recovery through enhancing self-esteem, self-respect, and self-worth.
So I walk my two miles a day for Vail Place. One day it was stinky hot, but I still did it. The next day, I was smart and got my walk in early. I need the exercise. But much more than that, as a person in recovery from mental illness myself, I need the feeling that I belong. Vail Place is a family for me. Belonging, having a way to make a contribution, knowing that I matter – what better reason for getting out of the house and striding boldly along through the unglamorous backside of a strip mall?