- Associated Press - Monday, January 22, 2018

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Sheldon House member Cheryl Taylor navigated nimbly through a buzz of activity at the clubhouse, which resembles a bustling office environment during most weekdays.

Taylor points out work being done by their culinary unit that organizes daily meals and runs the “Snack Shack,” and the business unit that schedules social activities, manages bus passes, updates the website, answers phones, runs an internal bank and handles a host of other duties.

Clubhouse members smiled as they looked up from their various duties.

“It’s a place to belong,” member India Knight said from her seat behind a long desk.

After about two years coming to Sheldon House, Knight said she still appreciates the structure it provides and perhaps even more important the sense of community. The outside world can sometimes be an unwelcoming place for those with mental illness, she said.

“We feel independent here,” Knight said. “And we feel accepted for who we are.”

The daily routine at the facility, operated by Cherry Health, was nearly brought to a standstill as budget cuts were made at the county level.

Grand Rapids clubhouse spared amid ‘painful’ cuts to mental health

The board of directors for Network 180, Kent County’s community mental health authority, were expecting to consider a recommendation to cut the program alongside several others in an effort to address a more than $10 million budget deficit. But a last-minute letter from state officials and word that local foundations might provide some funding support removed Sheldon House from the list of cuts just before they were approved by the board.

Working at Sheldon House’s front desk Tuesday, Jan. 9, Richard Peay was eager to express his gratitude for the self-esteem and skills like planning he has gained during his two decades there. Peay said he was happy to learn he will still be able to rely on the clubhouse for support and encouragement.

“They could have shut us down,” he said. “They gave us a second chance.”

For some, that seems appropriate because Sheldon House helped give them a second chance in life.

As he chopped vegetables for lunch, Rudolf Domaiar shared he was homeless about two years ago. Now, he has an apartment and is in the process of seeking permanent employment outside the clubhouse. With a little help from the staff and his fellow clubhouse members, Domaiar said he learned important lessons about what it takes to make positive changes in his life.

“Nobody’s going to do it for me,” he said. “I’ve got to do it for myself.”

Sheldon House Program Manager Tara VanDyke said the voluntary tasks can afford members a sense of purpose in their lives, and provide skills to those who will go on to seek employment in the outside world.

“Sometimes just having something to focus on and keep busy with takes focus away from the more negative things,” VanDyke said.

Stephen Worsley said he gets a lot of satisfaction from serving meals at lunchtime, which gives him a chance to meet all the members.

“I like communicating with everyone,” Worsley said. “It’s a friendly place to be.”

The clubhouse is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during weekdays, a time when many members must leave the places they live. Usually, the clubhouse also offers a social or recreational activity on one Saturday each month.

Members participate in morning and afternoon meetings, where they can volunteer for daily tasks and get important information about upcoming events and other news and information, The Grand Rapids Press reported.

The program, created in 1990 and accredited through Clubhouse International in 2014, also connects its members with both temporary and permanent job opportunities outside the clubhouse. Staff and community members can assist each other or just chat about problems they’re having.

“I learn from the other people,” said Robert Kennedy, who has been a regular at Sheldon House for about 10 years.

Before heading off for his morning coffee and morning tasks like folding laundry and lunch preparation, Kennedy said we was “freaked out” when he learned Sheldon House might be closing. Doing whatever it takes to help support his clubhouse has become his number one priority.

“Helping the club right now is more important,” Kennedy said.

One thing that makes the clubhouse model so unique is that it places great value on the program being a democratic system where staff and members make decisions together and share the responsibility of making the system work.

“Everyone is equal,” said Mary Eakins, an AmeriCorps member placed at Sheldon House. “Members are kind of encouraged to make this their own. And they get out of it whatever they want to get out of it.”

A four-page document outlining 37 “quality standards” expected at facilities accredited through Clubhouse International are blown up and hanging on a main hallway wall at Sheldon House. Each daily newsletter features one of the standards, reminding members and staff of their rights and responsibilities under the informal contract.

There is a library, computers and other materials for education and job search efforts, a laundry room, a conference room, a fitness center and even a video production studio, where members produce a regular video news program for their fellow members. Staff can assist members who seek outside employment both to make sure it’s a smooth adjustment and to ensure any financial and medical benefits they receive aren’t impacted.

Lucinda Holbrook, who has been coming to Sheldon House about five years, said without it she’d have nowhere to go during weekdays. It was good news when they found out the facility wouldn’t be closing.

“I’m just so relieved,” Holbrook said.

At the root of the funding problem is an unexpected change to Medicaid revenue Network 180 expected during the 2017 fiscal year. Network 180 Executive Director Scott Gilman said that resulted in a more than $10 million shortfall, draining cash reserves and forcing significant cuts to staffing and services.

Kent County cuts mental health services in face of $10M shortfall

Medicaid dollars provide the basis of funding for Sheldon House and many other mental health programs in the community.

Though there are ongoing fundraising efforts to fund scholarships for those who are not Medicaid-eligible, those individuals cannot currently benefit from the services Sheldon House offers.

That has long been a funding issue facing Sheldon House and other programs accredited through Clubhouse International. The organization stipulates the facilities should be open to all those with mental illness - not just those with Medicaid. It’s one of the only of the 37 standards the Grand Rapids-based program is unable to meet.

Sheldon House, which serves about 150 different people and sees about 50 people on a daily basis, would have been eliminated completely under the initial recommendation that would have narrowed Network 180’s budget gap by about $410,000.

The Network 180 Board of Directors still resolved to cut several other programs, amounting to total budgetary savings of about $778,000. The organization also has made staffing reductions expected to reduce expenses by another $2 million.

But with a remaining budget gap of more than $7 million, officials warn more cuts to Kent County’s mental health services will likely be necessary if the problem cannot be fixed on the revenue side.

Ottawa County residents also recently received word that the budget squeeze could impact services at the community’s Lakeshore Clubhouse, prompting a flurry of letters from members to their elected officials.

Holland mental health program closure ‘devastating,’ member says

Lakeshore Clubhouse has since been granted at least a temporary reprieve.

Lee Kellogg, the program officer for Clubhouse International in Michigan, said there is some fear among other clubhouse programs in the state they might face similar funding threats in the future.

“Clubhouses are feeling threatened and have heard rumors,” Kellogg said. “But nothing concrete.”

At the same time, he said, about half of the state’s 46 clubhouses have been accredited through Clubhouse International, a change spurred by studies that showed accredited clubhouses had better outcomes and were more cost-effective. The state’s system has grown to the point that other states have looked to Michigan as a model, Kellogg said, which made it an even bigger shock to learn the existence of two clubhouses in West Michigan - among the state’s most respected programs - were in jeopardy.

With evidence that clubhouse programs reduce spending on hospitalizations, incarceration and other services, Kellogg said there is a strong financial argument to be made to continue investing in clubhouses.

But the best arguments come from the stories of individual members, he said.

At a recent meeting of clubhouse members from across the state, Kellogg said, they discussed how the program can be difficult to describe. One of the members disagreed.

“He said, ‘It’s easy,’” Kellogg said. “‘Clubhouse saved my life,’ he said.”

___

Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids


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