- Associated Press - Monday, August 11, 2014

AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) - Skip-Bo is a fairly simple card game, but during the weekly tournament at The Bridge drop-in center, players bemoan lousy hands, fret over the next play and chortle over victories.

“It gets pretty serious,” said Scott Baudler, manager of the center and an avid Skip-Bo player.

Crystal Dennison likes the competitiveness and intensity. “Strangely, it makes it more fun,” she said.

For all the bemoaning, fretting and chortling, the winner might get a can of pop.

Winning isn’t why they’re there. Just being among equals is why they are there. At The Bridge, they feel at ease because all have some kind of mental illness, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, learning disorders and compulsive disorder, the (Rochester) Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/WRIXmR ) reported.

Outside The Bridge, they said they feel stigmatized by their illnesses and that people look down on them or fear them.

“You can’t talk about yourself. You have to keep to yourself,” said Baudler, who is bipolar. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about my mental illness to regular people.”

Much of that hesitancy comes from media stories, said Jesseca Harvet. If there is a shooting by someone with a mental illness, then everyone with that illness is suspect, she said.

Inside the downtown Austin drop-in center, however, they are among friends.

“This is the most friends I have ever had in one place in my whole entire life,” Dennison said. “I’m free to be myself.”

What makes The Bridge unusual is not only that it’s a drop-in center for people with mental illnesses but it’s also the only “consumer operated drop-in center in Minnesota,” said Michael Bednar, a volunteer who helps there and sits in on many forums.

In addition to talking and playing games, there is a pool table, a computer, books, a laundry (soap is free), a small exercise area and a kitchenette.

“They have got it figured out,” Bednar said. “They are good at running things.” If someone acts up, that person might be asked to leave and not come back until writing a letter of apology.

Each Wednesday, before dealing out Skip-Bo cards, they meet for The Forum to talk about anything that needs discussing, including who cleaned the vent for the clothes dryer.

Mower County pays the $70,000 for rent and utilities, Bednar said, but the consumers raise money for programs like Skip-Bo, bingo and other weekly games. They host two fundraisers a year. One, a brat feed, was on Aug. 2.

At the Forum at the end of July, they took time to talk about The Bridge itself.

Baudler said he brought up the idea, and the county’s former head of Health and Human Services, Bruce Henricks, agreed.

“It’s more peer to peer,” Baudler said. It’s easier talking about your illness with someone who has it than with a trained professional. “They don’t know what it’s like to live with it.”

The building they’re in now is the program’s third because they’ve needed more and more space, he said.

Besides being run by consumers, all of the workers are consumers.

One is Dennison. She said she has “had many, many, many jobs in the past because of my mental illness. This is the first job where they wanted me to come back. It feels really good.”

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Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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