Why Momentum Center’s approach to improving mental health is working

The Momentum Center for Community Engagement, a bright blue building a short walk from downtown Grand Haven, is like a second home for Judy Michmerhuizen.

Before the nonprofit, she hibernated at home, sometimes going days without seeing anyone. Now, she comes daily to the center to play pool or games with friends, and also helps out as a volunteer.

“I feel like it's a safe place. I can trust people and talk to them about my problems,” says Michmerhuizen, whose short salt-and-pepper hair frames her face. 

Barbara Lee VanHorssen stands in front of the Momentum Center for Social Engagement.Michmerhuizen is among hundreds who credit Momentum Center for easing their loneliness and anxiety. 

The Grand Haven nonprofit offers social and recreational programming for adults dealing with mental health issues, disabilities, and addictions – along with a teen program – geared to fostering healthy behaviors and overall well-being. 

What makes the Momentum Center so effective is that it's about the power of the human connection that comes with a supportive community. People realize they aren’t alone in their struggles, explains Barbara Lee VanHorssen, the center’s co-founder and executive director.

The innovative approach to mental health is working. This is confirmed not just by anecdotal stories like Michmerhuizen’s, but data shows the center’s unique model is moving the needle on improving mental health and helping people less isolated. 

An energetic force

The success of the program reflects the culmination of VanHorssen’s life work. Her commitment to social justice, human rights, and personal growth have forged her into a determined advocate for the voiceless.

“I've always been drawn to marginalized populations,” says VanHorssen, sitting in the sunlit office she shares with her small staff at the Momentum Center. 

A slight figure with long silver hair and delicate features, VanHorssen has an ethereal quality. Beyond that tranquil exterior lies an energetic force that gets things done at a remarkable pace. 

 “I'm not good at sitting still,” she says with a smile.

In four years, she has turned conversations over coffee into a haven for the disenfranchised.

The Momentum Center has expanded rapidly to meet needs at a pace more akin to that of tech startup than a community nonprofit. Recognizing that the center offers a unique solution to a growing mental health problem, VanHorssen is ready to scale up, whether that is across the county or the country. 

Getting attention

The center’s success is garnering attention. She has been asked to talk about her work at a Global Health Innovation Conference at Yale University in April. 

VanHorssen believes the center’s model complements clinical and therapeutic services, and can be implemented anywhere.

“I think of myself as an eclectic thinker. I can put other people's thoughts together in ways that maybe haven't been done before and then bring it to life,” she says.

The Momentum Center evolved out of listening to what the community needed. 

Those conversations in coffee shops grew into Town Hall meetings about mental health, which rallied support for a countywide mental health millage that passed with nearly 60% of the votes in 2016. A portion of the funds was used to open the Momentum Center in 2017 at 714 Columbus Avenue, taking over a lease from the Ottawa County Intermediate School District, which used the space for its youth adult services program.

Beyond the millage funding, the center is supported by the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, corporate sponsorship, and individual donations. It also launched initiatives to generate revenue streams through fundraisers, such as the annual Prom with a Purpose and the Salmon Run to eRase Stigma. Another source of revenue is the center’s Just Goods Gift and Cafe, a Fair Trade store open to members and the public. 

All of them, especially the cafe, have a dual purpose of bringing people together. 

The data

The effectiveness of the Momentum Center can be measured, according to Travis Andrews, a data scientist and the founder of the Spring Lake firm, ThenAtlas Analytics, which works with Lakeshore businesses and nonprofits. He analyzed 3 years of data collected through several mental health diagnostic instruments, such as Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9).

Barbara Lee VanHorssen gives a presentation to high school students.Members voluntarily report their feelings and symptoms through surveys repeated every six months on a number of factors, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, social connectedness, feelings of stigma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The latter can have a long-term impact on a person’s health, research shows.

“We're seeing much lower levels of things that members are reporting; symptoms of anxiety, loneliness have gone down as people are spending more time doing activities with friends, making friends, and creating social connectedness,” Andrews says.

He says after their first year, members, on average, reported feeling a 60% increase in social connectedness. They also experienced significantly reduced severity of symptoms associated with depression after a year, equating to a 33% reduction. Similarly, members also described a reduced severity of symptoms associated with anxiety and loneliness. 

Breaking the stigma

In Ottawa County, roughly 1 in 5 people struggle with mental health issues, according to a 2017 Needs Assessment by Ottawa County Community Health. The results echo a similar survey in 2011. Stigma around mental health is one barrier keeping people from seeking the help they need, the report concluded.

With the center’s model, participants don’t need a clinical diagnosis or a referral. Membership costs $1 a year.

“It’s all about normalizing the conversation, breaking the stigma, making sure that people feel comfortable asking for what they need,” VanHorssen says. 

Momentum Center continues to foster discussions on issues that impact marginalized populations with Town Hall meetings and monthly Inspire events on a range of topics such as racism, veterans issues, and invisible poverty. 

Originally launched as Extending Grace, the nonprofit is now using the Momentum Center name to avoid confusion with another nonprofit. 

A year after opening, the Momentum Center added a teen center, which offers a place for youth, ages 11-18, to hang out, take classes, or play games. By providing a safe place to spend time, the center is able to address the cares and concerns of today’s teens. 

The center’s activity room is a flexible space. Tables and chairs with wheels can be rolled away for exercise, meditation, and yoga classes, then rolled back for bingo and arts-and-crafts sessions. 

There are also four support group meetings and free movie nights. With so much going on, the nonprofit is outgrowing the nearly 7,000-square-foot space. 

Personal experience

Before Momentum, VanHorssen had a 30-year career in health care administration, nonprofit administration, and ministry, which evolved into going out on her own as a consultant, author, and speaker. 

A personal experience brought the county’s growing mental health struggle front and center for her. VanHorssen’s son, Alex, had his first break with reality when he was a high school junior. But it took a few years to diagnose his schizophrenia. He spent five months in and out of a hospital and residential care at age 19 until he was stabilized with the right medication. During those years, Alex lost many of his childhood friendships and felt isolated, his mom says. 

Judy Michmerhuizen talks to a friend at the Momentum Center for Community Engagement.

Now 25, Alex is working and has found community at the Momentum Center, where he contributes as a volunteer. 

A photo shows Alex, a tall, burly blond with a smile, flipping burgers on a grill for a Momentum gathering. It flashes on a screen during VanHorssen’s presentation to students from Grand Haven High School visiting the center. They are part of the Pay It Forward class, which studies the impact of nonprofits in the community. 

The Momentum Center stands out from other nonprofits the students visit, partly because it continues to evolve, says Brian Williams, who teaches the class. 

“They keep on kind of extending their fingers out into the community to try to essentially do whatever is needed,” Williams says.

That’s by design, says VanHorssen, who has given herself the title of “Experi-mentor.”

The center has expanded to fill gaps of need, from hosting QPR (Question, Persuade, Referral) suicide prevention training to providing shower and laundry facilities for members who are homeless.

“I believe my role is to mentor experiences and I recognize everything we are doing is an experiment.”

Learn more about the group’s work at momentumcentergh.org.
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.