There’s No Place Like Hope
Friendship and connection are at the hub of Hope Clubhouse, offering rehabilitation for adults with mental illness
There are no secret passwords or exclusive dues to join. At Hope Clubhouse of Southwest Florida, openness and acceptance—of each other’s mental illness—are the keys to membership. Focusing on strengths, learning new skills, making friends or returning to the workforce are the goals for the 200-plus members.
The nonprofit Hope Clubhouse in Fort Myers is one of eight in Florida and 330 in the w orld accredited by New York-based Clubhouse International, a nonprofit that oversees the Clubhouse program worldwide. James Wineinger, Hope Clubhouse’s executive director, has almost 30 years of experience in mental health, including at Fountain House in New York, established as the first Clubhouse in 1948.
Members are 18 or older and have primarily been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depression or schizophrenia, says Wineinger, adding that an estimated 10.5 percent of the United States population lives with one of these “big three” illnesses.
Seeing a psychiatrist and taking medicines aren’t always enough to skip along in life. “For almost everybody, that’s not the case. It takes multiple forms of support,” says Wineinger. “One of the hardest issues to address is the tendency to be isolated.” That’s where the Clubhouse comes in—engaging participants committed to enriching their lives.
Members can visit as often and for as long as they want. Clubhouse work is divvied into units—business, culinary and horticulture in the new permaculture garden—geared toward skill development. Regular structure and predictability are vital, and each day begins with a 9 a.m. house meeting before members tend to their tasks.
Each week 150 lunches are served, and the $1.50 meal ticket is members’ only expense. Members plan the menu, budget, shop, cook and serve lunch at cloth-dressed tables. “It gives that sense of structure, and good team-building happens,” says Wineinger.
Each member brings distinct skills to the clubhouse: assembling the newsletter, filing, data entry, answering phones, managing computers, harvesting fresh salad ingredients. They take turns cleaning, and they gather to socialize and watch movies. A member named Cynthia is happy she’s met “people who treat you like people.” The Transitional Employment Program partners with about 10 local employers for job placement, including Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida Public Defender Kathleen A. Smith and Goodwill Industries. Building confidence and self-esteem happen at the individual’s pace. One participant recently returned to the workforce after a 17-year hiatus. The unemployment rate for those with mental illness is 10 to 15 percent, but 40 percent of Clubhouse members venture into employment. “Conservatively, we’re doubling access to employment with partners we have in the community,” Wineinger says.
Its programs are also centered on wellness, housing and education. Some participants obtain their GED (General Equivalency Diploma) or attend technical school. Others are in need of decent affordable housing—up to 20 percent teeter on the cusp of homelessness.
Around the Clubhouse, members joke, work and share obstacles and successes—together. Friendship, after all, is the hub of the club. Since joining, a member named Lisa says, “I feel productive. I feel a connection with people—and they’ve given me a reason to live.” Cathy Chestnut is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media who explores the people and places that make Southwest Florida, her hometown stomping grounds, unique.