Bridging Dependence

Written by Annie Haarmann for the Suburban Journal of St. Charles County and StlToday.com, published in January, 2010

Many St. Charles, Mo. residents have probably passed the historic brick house at 322 McDonough Street in old town St. Charles and wondered about its history. However, the real story of Headway Clubhouse is not its building, but the people who make up its membership.

Gabriel Koch and Dave Greenwalt are members of Headway, and they each have come a long way since joining. Koch is a 33-year-old who has been clubhouse member for 10 years, Greenwalt, 55, has been a member for 20 years.

Before he found Headway, Koch says he associated with people who had negative influences on him.

“I ended up on the streets collecting beer cans for my next meal,” he remembers. Koch describes Headway as a place where he can meet friends who will be a positive part of his life now. “It’s really hard for me to make friends,” says Koch. “Being a clubhouse member has increased my chances of making friends and it means having somewhere to go with friends who are a good influence.”

Headway, a program of Crider Health Center, is one of more than 300 worldwide clubhouses accredited by the International Center for Clubhouse Development with the goal of helping people with mental illness live better lives. Crider Health Center operates two ICCD accredited clubhouse programs: Headway Clubhouse in St. Charles, Mo. and Harmony Clubhouse in Washington, Mo. Some components of the program include work teams, social activities and transitional employment training. Members also benefit from wellness classes, housing assistance and advocacy.

Program manager, Jennifer Nord, describes Koch as having come out of his shell in recent years. “Gabe used to be quiet and reserved, but over time, he started participating and becoming more social.” Koch, who used to have a beard, came in one day clean-shaven to everyone’s surprise at the clubhouse. “He shaved off his entire beard to look more professional. The whole clubhouse was so proud of him and impressed with this change that we just started screaming and clapping when he came in after his first day of work.”

In addition to the benefits of clubhouse membership, Koch also appreciates the network of Crider Health Center services available to help him with all of his health care needs. “I used to have a CSW (Community Support Worker) and then I also found out about the pharmacy and the doctors.”

Too often, people with mental illness are treated differently because of the negative stigma associated with their illness. Glenn Close, who founded BringChange2Mind.org, says that while society is able to speak openly about once taboo issues such as cancer and AIDS, the stigma of mental illness still prevents its open discussion.

“Illnesses that were once discussed only in hushed tones are now part of healthy conversation and activism. Yet when it comes to (mental illnesses) we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance,” she explained in a recent editorial in the Huffington Post.

Since being a member of Headway, Greenwalt says he has been trying to get over the stigma of mental illness and likes being around people who have been through similar circumstances. He has also been able to get along better with his family and follow a 12-step recovery program.

“I don’t drink anymore and the people here don’t encourage drinking,” he explains, “So, I’ve been able to make several friends here. I also have some contacts with other people in recovery.”

In the clubhouse setting, members are not treated like patients. Members and staff work together as colleagues to make decisions and perform tasks.

As Nord explained, “Some members have never been given the chance to show their abilities, so the most rewarding part for me is seeing the members succeed at achieving their goals.”

Members can choose from three work teams at Headway, called units: The Business Unit oversees the accounting, paperwork, filing, clubhouse newsletter and membership hours. The Career Development Unit provides tours, arranges transportation and works to promote the employment program. The Kitchen Unit runs the snack bar and cooks the daily meal, which members are able to purchase for $1.00. Each unit gives members some experience to learn the skills that will be necessary for them to find employment.

Koch and Greenwalt have found employment at Gordman’s in St. Charles through Headway’s Transitional Employment program. In the program, clubhouse staff learn a job and then train a clubhouse member how to do that job. The members, some of whom have difficulty finding and keeping employment because of their mental illness, get the benefit of having a part-time job with a steady paycheck. Because transportation is often an issue, the clubhouse arranges rides to and from the jobs.

The program is mutually beneficial to the businesses because Headway guarantees that someone will always show up for the scheduled shift. Employers do not have to worry about unexpected absences or turnover because the Headway staff can always take over a shift, or train a new member to do that position. In addition, employers can benefit from tax credits available through the Work Opportunity Tax Act.

Koch and Greenwalt have been working part-time as merchandise processors at Gordman’s since September and have found the work to be a fulfilling part of their lives.

“It gets me out of the house so I’m not so isolated. It keeps me active,” says Greenwalt.

Members also participate in social activities such as seeing a show at the Muny in Forest Park. The idea behind the activities is to give members a chance to socialize with each other in a comfortable environment where they do not feel isolated because of their mental illness.

“Headway really takes your fears and just gets them out of the way,” says Koch. “You’re always greeted at the door, and someone always has time for you.”

The spirit of giving is alive and well among the children in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Recently, an eight-year old girl was inspired to make an impact on homelessness in St. Louis in her own unique way.