Muskegon’s Lemonade Stand offers an oasis for those struggling with mental illness

On a slow, quiet street in the Nelson neighborhood of downtown Muskegon sits a small, unassuming craftsman house. Like many of the houses around it, built during the economic booms of this boom-and-bust Midwestern town, the house has seen its share of love and neglect. But unlike those around it, and unknown to many in the community, for the past 20 years, this house has been home to hundreds of neighbors needing family and support. 

With nothing setting it apart from the others, except for a small letter-sized sign nailed above the porch that reads “The Lemonade Stand of Muskegon,” this house is an oasis for many in the community who struggle with mental health and/or addiction issues, who not only are looking for support but who also wish to support others. As Judie, founder and president of The Lemonade Stand, once shared, “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and that's where the name came from.”
A Lemonade Stand member basks in the sun after playing in Muskegon lake. Group trips help to create shared experiences, building relationships among members.

Lemonade Stand members share memories of growing up in Muskegon.

One member, Charles, has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, although you would never know unless he talks about it. The symptoms of his condition have been with him throughout his life, exaggerating the peaks and troughs of the hard situations he has lived through. A solid psychiatric diagnosis was not forthcoming until the past few years. 

“It stresses me out,” Charles shares. “I wish I could just click my brain and turn it off. But now, knowing what I have has been really helpful to understand what's happening to me.” 

Tip of the iceberg

For many members of The Lemonade Stand and the 20% of the USA population who struggle with mental health issues, the National Alliance on Mental Health says the symptoms of a mental health condition are just the tip of the iceberg of struggles patients face. Social isolation, family disownment, job loss, homelessness, hunger, addiction, and abuse all play a part in the lives of many within this community. And that’s often what holds them together — no one else can understand their struggles. At The Lemonade Stand, however, there is understanding, shared experiences, acceptance, and family.

A membership day center for people struggling with mental health and/or addiction, The Lemonade Stand works on a participatory method. Each member is responsible for keeping the center clean and tidy, helping do the chores, cook food, and, most importantly, to look after each other. 

But it is much more than just a treatment center. As an independent endeavor, The Stand has no obligation to provide programs or treatments but is instead free to simply treat its members as friends and family. 
The Lemonade Stand is run through member engagement. Each member is responsible for looking after the building and the day to day running of the community. Members volunteer every week to take on specific tasks.
Judy leads a weekly Lemonade Stand members meeting. The stand is a member-run club where members hold positions, elections, and vote on measures when needed.

A Lemonade Stand of Muskegon member sorts through their collection of medication.

Members are staff

There is no separation between staff and members because all members are staff, and like a real family, responsibility for each other is shared. 

As Judie has shared, “A member told me about the negative approach many other programs take. He said, ‘“When they take away our responsibility, it's like they take our soul’ instead of "they take away our soul" and those words have always haunted me. I wanted to give responsibility back, and if they don't have it at home, they have it here.” 

Within the mental health network of West Michigan, The Stand is an alternative to the program-heavy, grant-orientated options many members have experienced and left due to the lack of safety, community, and support they felt was provided. Communities like The Lemonade Stand are rare in a field that traditionally has focused more on quantifying success over sharing responsibility and building community together. 

A Lemonade Stand Member performs their daily task of vacumming. All members are expected to share in the responsibilities of keeping the Stand clean and tidy.

‘Part of a family’

Although the majority of members are connected to the local mental health infrastructure, where their medical and counseling needs are met, their community needs are met at The Lemonade Stand. 

As Judie has put it, "If you have someone to take care of, that builds your confidence. It gets you out of your head. If you're helping someone else, you're going to benefit, too. That's what I want to give them, a chance to be part of a family because so many people have been abandoned by their family." 

Although the stand strives to provide members with social connections, it is often difficult to work with members when they are struggling with their condition and medication.

Many members draw from their personal experiences to inform the care they share with each other. Information like hotline contacts, housing resources, financial opportunities, information on pharmaceutical dosages and side effects, personal health care, community opportunities, who is serving free meals, and even how to spot a stroke are shared between members. Most of the information has been gained through personal experience and struggle. 

Finances a constant worry

The Stand continues to provide community to those who need it, and with low operating costs, the board, made up of Stand members, has been able to make finances stretch far more than a traditional staff-patient center might have. But finances are still a constant worry for The Stand. 

"It's a shame, but we have to think about fundraisers,” Judie has shared. “We can get by from what we have, but just barely. It pays the rent and utilities, and the credit card bill. We have done ‘walkafunds,’ which have brought in some money, but I have never seen us being a big-budget thing. 

“The Stand isn’t for-profit, and I wanted to make sure those involved had control, that's why we stay away from large grants that have certain criteria attached,” she said. 

In fact, many of the activities, group trips to facilitate shared experiences among members, seasonal parties celebrating holidays and birthdays, building relationships, and connections to challenge isolation have been paid for out of Judie’s own pocket. Judie even occasionally forfeited rent due to her, as the building owner, when the budget has gotten too tight.

A Lemonade Stand member helps a friend get connected to various housing options. Many Stand members have had experience with homelessness, often due to the cost of housing and the inability to hold down steady employment due to their mental health an

A list of useful contacts and information hangs on the wall.
An extra blow

On top of the tight financial situation, The Lemonade Stand has been dealt an extra blow. Judie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2020, deciding to forgo any of the invasive treatments available to her. In her last few months, Judie dedicated herself to her family and making sure The Stand had some form of security in the future, handing over its operation to her daughter and making sure her day-to-day responsibilities were taken on by members of The Stand. 

Judie died May 11, 2020, leaving behind a gaping hole within the community she had built. Although Judie's family is adamant about keeping The Stand running as long as possible, the community has been left in shock, paralyzed by the loss of their greatest ally and cheerleader.

It is a difficult time for nonprofit mental health care in Michigan and across the United States, according to a recent Community Mental Health Association of Michigan report. The demand for mental health services has surpassed not only the availability of such care but also the allocated funding. And, with the growing mental health struggles created by the COVID-19 pandemic isolating many people from much-needed community support, the mental health crisis is only set to get worse. 

With the loss of Judie, dwindling finances, and The Stand’s ongoing commitment to the community over any program data (required for many grants), the future of this much-needed community, and its members like Charles, is uncertain.
A Stand member out side the Lemonade Stand of Muskegon.
To connect or learn more about The Lemonade Stand of Muskegon, you can find them on Facebook. Hear more voices of those helped by The Lemonade stand here.

Read more articles by Pat ApPaul.