, Washtenaw County's clubhouse for those living with and seeking to recover from mental illness, is in transition, and Executive Director Summer Berman hopes to find the program a permanent home soon.
Berman, an Ypsilanti resident, says the county has had a clubhouse of some kind for nearly 30 years. Historically, community mental health has contracted with a third-party provider of some kind to provide these services. A group called Trail Blazers ran it for a while, and for the past 12 years it was run by an organization called Touchstone Services.
"During the [COVID-19] pandemic, Touchstone decided it no longer wanted to hold onto this contract to provide clubhouse services … but it is still a necessary service," Berman says.
After Touchstone relinquished its contract with the clubhouse, Berman and members of the clubhouse spent two months examining their options
Fresh Start Clubhouse Executive Director Summer Berman.
"We decided the best thing for existing members, and in large part for Washtenaw County, would be for us to incorporate independently, become a nonprofit, and operate the clubhouse ourselves," Berman says.
Berman explains that the clubhouse is based on an international model designed for people who live with serious mental illness diagnoses like bipolar disorder or depression.
"It basically helps people live the life they want to live by helping them with their life and recovery goals," Berman says. "That might look like helping them find employment or get an education, but it also provides support around housing, transportation, and case management needs."
Each member creates a personalized action plan about where they want to go in their lives. Ypsilanti resident Michelle Ford began attending the clubhouse in 2008 and has experienced various levels of employment support. For one job, she received the highest level of support through the clubhouse's employment transition program, which provides a job coach who trains the clubhouse member and helps them to succeed.
Berman says employers get many benefits from the transitional employment program, including spending less time training new staff. If the clubhouse member has to call off sick, the employment coach might even cover that shift.
Ford also found other jobs with lower levels of support from Fresh Start, like help writing resumes or conducting mock interviews. The clubhouse also helped her go back to school to work on a degree.
Beyond helping members with issues like employment and housing, the main benefit of the clubhouse model is community.
"What makes the clubhouse special is that, instead of operating like a case manager or a service provider, the clubhouse is a community-facing and community-oriented program," Berman says. "A lot of the benefit people derive from the clubhouse is from their own participation in the operation of the clubhouse."
Berman says the clubhouse model was designed in the '40s, and joining Fresh Start isn't that different from joining a country club or any other type of club.
"Part of that membership is having a welcoming, comfortable space where they're respected and feel like they belong," Berman says.
Fresh Start clubhouse wellness walk at Riverside Park.
Before the pandemic, the clubhouse offered two main work details. The culinary unit cooked lunch for members and did the shopping, menu planning, and cleanup. Culinary unit members also operated a small snack bar. Members in the clerical unit helped with billing, contracts, new member intake and enrollment, and other office work.
"Members do everything from making sure the bathrooms are clean to hiring staff," Berman says.
Berman says the clubhouse was previously always located in Ann Arbor but open to all county residents. She says that, as the organization makes its transition, she'd ideally like to find a place between Ann Arbor and Ypsi to make it convenient to all residents.
"But, if I had to choose, I would choose Ypsi. It's my home address, and we're incorporated in Ypsilanti," Berman says.
Programs went virtual during the earliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the program is running on a hybrid model, with some programs held virtually and some in-person in a conference room in a county-owned building. Washtenaw County Community Mental Health is directly running the clubhouse program until Fresh Start can finish the process of becoming an independent nonprofit, something members hope to complete in the next two months or so.
Berman notes that operating fully virtually was "a real struggle."
"Not being able to be together in person and going virtual was, in some sense, an attack on the heart of the clubhouse model. A really important part of the clubhouse community is a sense of belonging and ownership of the space," she says. "So when we had to give up our space during the pandemic, it was really difficult for people. A lot of members talk about the clubhouse as their second family."
Running in-person events out of a conference room is also difficult when the program used to have access to 5,000 square feet, including a full kitchen and two bathrooms.
"On the other hand, one of the many strengths of the clubhouse model is that it builds genuine and strong relationships with people," she says. "We were very successful at creating a virtual version of the clubhouse, and our clubhouse did a lot better than many other mental health services."
Ypsilanti resident and clubhouse member Bill Teepen says the clubhouse has been "very helpful" in supporting him as he sought employment, and with other life needs. Teepen enjoys the virtual option, since traveling to Ann Arbor to go to the clubhouse in person would have been difficult. During the pandemic he began writing for the clubhouse's newsletter, "Fresh Prints."
Clubhouse member Bill Teepen.
"A newsletter is something you can do at home, so I got started writing for it in part because I like to write and like to encourage other people to write," Teepen says.
He notes that the newsletter already existed before the pandemic, but wasn't published on a consistent basis.
"It took the pandemic to actually get the newsletter up and running the way the clubhouse had always wanted it to be," Teepen says.
He says the newsletter is both a way to express himself and a way to stay in touch with other members.
Ford appreciates the employment support and support for staying in school that she gets from the clubhouse, but also notes that a sense of belonging is a big draw.
"There's a whole lot of stuff they helped with in my recovery. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have Fresh Start in my life," Ford says. "It's a great opportunity for anyone who needs to get back into community, a place where they can belong and feel they're connected."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.