THE JOURNEY TO A GRAND CLUBHOUSE

by Rachel Forman, PhD

‘Rachel Forman came to Milwaukee by way of New York, Boston, and Chicago in 1987. She has been the executive director of Grand Avenue Club (GAC) (www.grandavenueclub.com) since 1991. Rachel also serves on the Advisory Council of the International Center for Clubhouse Development (www.iccd.org), an organization devoted to the establishment of Clubhouses like Grand Avenue Club throughout the world.

Before, during, and after my completion of a Ph.D. in political sociology, I assumed that I would have a college teaching career. What was to be a three year stay in Chicago while my husband pursued a fellowship in cardiology at The University of Chicago led to my matriculation for a master’s degree in Social Policy & Administration at that university in order to make myself more “marketable.” Upon moving to Milwaukee in 1987, I secured a job at a well-respected social service agency that served people with “exceptional needs.” (Their term, not mine.) I did psychotherapy, supportive counseling, helped people with their finances and other matters, and ran a monthly support group for family members and a weekly “breakfast club” for clients.

It was a good agency and I both learned from and enjoyed my “clients” and the work itself, but I rapidly concluded—erroneously—that the most that could be done for people with mental illnesses was to encourage them to see their psychiatrist, take their medication, and provide opportunities to socialize. I saw myself as bearing witness to a sad human situation, and I was pleased to help mitigate the disabling effects of mental illnesses by encouraging medication compliance and careful budgeting, implementing talk therapies, and organizing genuinely enjoyable restaurant meals, parties, holiday celebrations and outings.

Psychiatric symptoms are managed–more or less effectively—by medications and talk therapy. The disabling effects, which may include low self-esteem, much reduced confidence, isolation, and even intense anger and fear, cannot be managed by medication alone. But they can be reduced or eliminated when a community offers unqualified acceptance and conviction about the resilience, earnestness and capacity for contribution of most people with mental illnesses. I have the privilege of being a leader in this kind of community. This community is a small non-profit organization with a powerful vision about mental illnesses. The organization is Grand Avenue Club (GAC); it has become a critical lifeline for hundreds of Milwaukee County residents who live with the symptoms and disabling effects of mental illness.

My journey to the Grand Avenue Club began in May 1989 when I was asked to represent the agency at a local conference on “The Clubhouse Model of Psychiatric Rehabilitation,” something about which I knew nothing. The conference turned out to be life-changing for me.

I learned that, despite the recreational connotation of the term “Clubhouse,” a “Clubhouse” is actually an intentional community of people that is devoted to creating a range of opportunities for adults who experience mental illnesses.

A Clubhouse is a place where every participant—called a “member” in clubhouse parlance—is involved voluntarily and is unqualifiedly accepted into the community. This community assumes that every person has talents and abilities that benefit others—but that in many instances, members have not had the opportunity to discover what their talents and abilities are. A Clubhouse is a place where members work side by side with a few staff members, volunteering to do whatever is necessary to run their own community. This includes catering, publishing newsletters, maintaining and cleaning a building, doing data entry, managing finances, paying bills, public speaking, and serving on a board of directors that makes policies and raises funds.

These activities lead to the members securing jobs with quality employers, post-secondary education at well-respected schools, and access to desirable housing in the community. It also means that the Clubhouse advocates for good psychiatric and medical services for its members and seeks out whatever else is necessary for members to live well in the broader community.

The people who made presentations at this 1989 conference came from two well-established Clubhouse Programs—one in New York and the other in Massachusetts. They spoke compellingly about the huge impact of their Clubhouse communities on their lives. I learned from people who had known from painful first-hand experience all about isolation, self-doubt, and stigma. These people now reported that they were living satisfying lives in which they were engaged in work and/or study, involved with friends, had intimate relationships, and looked forward to the future.

Months later, excited about what I had learned, I joined with many other people throughout this area to create a Milwaukee County-wide coalition focusing on acquiring the funding to begin a Milwaukee County Clubhouse Model Program that would assist people living with mental illnesses throughout the county to access opportunities that many others take for granted.

We were successful. With our determined advocacy, a hearty band of psychiatric patients, family members, advocates, and treatment professionals secured the start-up funding from Milwaukee County for this program.

During this time, I read whatever literature I could find about Clubhouses and learned that the effort to create them was global, that there was a “Clubhouse movement,” that most Clubhouses in the United States were on the east coast, but there were some notable Clubhouses in other parts of the country, and that there were also many programs that referred to themselves as “clubhouses’ but were nothing more than drop-in centers without the inspiring vision of developing effective strategies for integrating members into society by way of paid employment and education.

I visited a real Clubhouse in Wisconsin and liked what I saw, thereby increasing my desire to be part of a Clubhouse community and to devote whatever talents I may have to it. With some trepidation, I applied for the job of executive director, with the assumption that I would not be selected for the position because of a lack of administrative experience. But to my surprise, I was selected. So in September 1991, I began my work as Executive Director of what was later named Grand Avenue Club and I have been at it ever since.

Since that time, I have been privileged to be part of a community that has grown to include hundreds of people. This community has helped so many increase their confidence and ready themselves for work. It has established employment slots with quality employers; it has encouraged people to attend school for a vocational credential or for the sheer pleasure of learning. The Grand Avenue has become a lifeline to more than a thousand Milwaukee County citizens who have experienced mental illnesses. Among them are my closest friends.

In official documents, the mission of the Club is stated in this way: “to provide people who experience mental illness with pre-vocational, employment, educational, housing, recreational, and cultural opportunities.”

“Pre-vocational” means that the members of the Club actually run it themselves while working alongside a small but dedicated staff. The Club’s employment programs have launched hundreds of people into the paid labor force in good jobs with quality employers. The Club takes education seriously and encourages many members to attend school for a certificate, a degree, or simply to learn something new.

The Club helps people secure more-than-merely-adequate housing and have help furnishing and maintaining their living independently. The Club runs a well-stocked re-sale shop so that members may find household goods and clothing at rock-bottom prices. Evening, weekend, and holiday programming celebrates life and special occasions, as do the picnics in the park, and attending concerts, plays, and sports events.

Our most recent venture is an art gallery called GalleryGrand@GAC. Many talented artists—members, staff, volunteers, and local artists with some tie to our community—exhibit their work in Gallery Grand. The gallery participates in Milwaukee’s Gallery Night & Day programming. Gallery Grand recently received a grant from the Milwaukee Arts Board for a show entitled, “The State of the Art of the State: A Milwaukee Gathering of Emerging Wisconsin Artists,” featuring art from all six Wisconsin Clubhouses.

My involvement at the Club for nearly 18 years has been so rewarding. As we all know, mental illnesses are not a rare phenomenon. They affect people in every family from every segment of society. When people come to the Club, they are often hesitant, but after awhile, it is gratifying to see them join in to run the place, to see their confidence grow, and to see them begin to feel a sense of ownership about their new Club. Nothing really happens here without members. Members are involved in financial management, catering, data entry work, publishing newsletters, keeping the place clean, giving tours, doing receptionist work, and advocacy and public speaking work on the Club’s behalf. Hundreds have gone on to paid employment in Milwaukee and we are proud that in 2009, Club members earned more than $937,000 in taxable revenue!

One of the things that I love most about Clubhouse philosophy is that it makes no assumptions about the capacities of members because they have experienced a mental illness. Our intention as a community is to be talent scouts in the lives of our members.

The Club is always open to new people, as volunteers and members.. If you, or someone you know, would be interested in becoming a member of the Grand Avenue Club, please come down for a no-obligation member-led tour, which can be arranged by calling 414.276.6474.

If you do that, please stop by my second floor office and say hello. Grand Avenue welcomes new people to help add to a community that is always there, not only for them, but for the next generation of people who will live with a mental illness. There will always be a need for an intentional community that will reveal the talents, interests, and resilience of our fellow citizens who experience a mental illness.
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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on June 01, 2009

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