Jason Woody ’04, sociology, is the interim executive director of B’More Clubhouse.
I was living in Santa Cruz, California when I received a call from Fountain House in New York City which turned out to be a phone interview. I was unprepared and honestly had not done any research on the organization. I’ll never forget that when I was asked, “So tell me what you know about Fountain House,” I replied “Well… not much.” Ouch! Fortunately the phone interview took a turn for the better and I was given the opportunity to go to Fountain House for a tour and in-person interview, where I was better prepared and secured myself a job.
Fountain House is a nonprofit membership organization for adults living with mental illness. Members (not referred to as clients, patients, consumers, etc) work side by side with professional staff in all operations of the organization: from lunch prep to fundraising, database management, gardening, facilitating educational classes and workshops, you name it. The model that Fountain House has pioneered since 1948 focuses on members’ strengths and talents rather than their illness. One of the earliest and most influential innovators of the model, John Beard, believed that no matter how sick a person is, everyone has “islands of wellness” and so the focus should be on expanding those islands.
Fountain House, and now over 350 “Clubhouses” worldwide, empower members to discover, use, and expand their talents by applying them daily through the work of the Clubhouse. Equally vital are the personal relationships that individuals form with one another while doing this work. And in addition, Clubhouses offer supportive education and employment programs that help to transition members back into school or work in the community. Research has shown that the Clubhouse model has been successful with employment and education outcomes and helps to keep members out of the hospital.
Having faith in members’ existing talents and empowering them to move forward is meaningful to me personally. I strongly believe that empowerment is the long term solution for members to be self-sufficient and to blossom outside of their comfort zone. As a student at UMBC, I was often empowered by the Residential Life and Shriver Center staff to build on my own strengths and take initiative with leadership opportunities. While I was not always confident at the beginning, I could rely on ongoing mentorship and support, which allowed me to experience a great deal of personal and professional growth during my years at UMBC.
After I worked at Fountain House for about two and a half years I found out about a Clubhouse that was starting in Baltimore called B’More Clubhouse. I was so excited that a Clubhouse was being developed “back home”. There were Clubhouses all around the United States and internationally: Israel, Uganda, Norway, Kosovo, South Korea, just to name a few; but this would be the first Clubhouse in Maryland and I knew that was where I belonged.
For the past three years I have been working at B’More, helping to develop the program from its infancy. It has been an amazing experience to see a Clubhouse grow from the ground up. We now have over 160 members who for the most part live in neighborhoods all around Baltimore City. Though we have a lot of growth ahead of us, we have created our own Clubhouse culture here in Baltimore and we have begun to see results. I have had the great pleasure of seeing people re-discover their confidence and then go on to help their fellow members do the same.
We have had people tell us that they have isolated themselves for years and now they are able to connect to a positive and productive community. Many of these folks have also returned to work or school. I often hear people say that when others ask them what they do, they are so thrilled that they now have an actual response. For all of us, not just those with mental illness, having a sense of purpose validates us and gives us something that we can be proud of.
Mental illness unfortunately can strike anyone and it does often disrupt people’s lives. It can be devastating for the individual, their family, and their friends. But what I have learned and witnessed firsthand is that people can and do reclaim their mental health with the right support and the personal commitment to move forward. Clubhouses help to bridge the gap back into society and I’m very proud to be a part of a community of people who work towards that every day at B’More Clubhouse.