July 28, 2014

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A place to gather and to grow hope

LORAIN — The Gathering Hope House is not your typical mental health facility.

CHUCK HUMEL/CHRONICLE
Tim Collins, a recovery counselor at Gathering Hope House, helps Jewell Marie Ervin, of LaGrange, decorate a Halloween wreath.

Colorful characters grace its halls, but the antiseptic feel of an institution is nowhere to be found. It feels almost homey with its lounge room with a big-screen television and plush furniture. Just down the corridor, there is a dining hall decorated in the style of a 1950s soda shop.

It’s a place where the mentally ill come to learn, relax and laugh in an environment that is designed by them, for them.

When the idea came to start a consumer-driven, non-profit organization aimed at leading the mentally ill to recovery, some skepticism about whether a facility for the mentally ill run by the mentally ill would succeed.

Yet, this month the Gathering Hope House is celebrating its second anniversary amid many accomplishments, both professional and personal.

“This program has saved a lot of our lives,” said Traci Jacobs, associate director.
Jacobs glows as she tells the stories.

Recovery specialist Tim Collins was an artist studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Yet, he also suffers from bipolar disorder.

Eventually, the two aspects of his life collided, and Collins left the Institute.

“But that didn’t mean he was done,” Jacobs said. “He got the help he needed and now he works here, leading some of the best art therapy classes I have ever seen.”

Collins said he uses a common-sense approach to his classes.

“Art is something everyone can do, and it builds confidence,” he said.

It is not until Jacobs begins to tell her own story that it becomes apparent she also has faced challenges.

Several years ago, Jacobs said her bipolar disorder was so severe she couldn’t work. The voices in her head were loud; she was depressed and dependent on Social Security.

Then, she started to get help at the Nord Center. Gradually, her life began to change, she said.

Fast forward to 2007. Jacobs holds a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, is a licensed social worker and employed full-time at the Gathering Hope House. More importantly, she said she now views herself as a contributing member of society and a respectable woman in her children’s eyes.

“I am now the person I have always known I could be,” she said. “I still hear the voices, but now I have the tools to say, ‘That’s just in my head. It can’t make me do anything. It’s just a voice.’”

When the opportunity came to help to run the center, Jacobs said, she could not decline.

“I had to do this. I’ve been there. But when they look at me and know I’m the associate director, they know they can get better, too,” she said. “We use our stories to kind of inspire people and in turn they inspire us.”

Success stories are the foundation that builds recovery. The Gathering Hope House is not a medical facility; nor does it provide Medicaid billable services. What it does provide is extensive peer-to-peer counseling, said Jack Cameron, executive director.

“We approached the situation that everyone has something to offer. It doesn’t matter if they have a mental illness,” Cameron said. “Mental illness changes you, but with the right tools, a person can learn better how to cope with obstacles and stresses in life.”

The Gathering Hope House began taking shape in 2003 after the Nord Rehabilitation Center gave notice it was going to cease operation within two years. The Lorain County Board of Mental Health served as the center’s main funding source.

Once the Nord Rehabilitation Center shut down, the county board of mental health offered funding to Gathering Hope House.

The county backed the project, matching a $300,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Mental Health. That, combined with $1.76 million in private donations, financed the development of the recovery center. It was just enough to purchase the building the center now uses on North Ridge Road.

“From the beginning, this was a cooperative process between the state, county and Nord Rehabilitation Center,” Cameron said. “No one worried about having their toes stepped on. It was a smooth transition for all. On June 30, 2005, the county ceased funding for the rehabilitation center and our funding started the next day.”

Cameron said although the agency has a contract that allows county funding, it operates as an independent non-profit organization with an 11-member board of directors, six of whom receive mental health care.

The program operates as a modified clubhouse with a focus on work for people suffering from mental illnesses including schizophrenia, severe depression, anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. The center is open during the day to any adult who has been treated for a mental illness. Cameron said a significant number of members are convicted felons or former drug addicts.

During the evening and weekends, the atmosphere changes to a drop-in social center. No stringent constraints dictate how often each member must use the center or what programs they should be in.

“It’s structured freedom,” Cameron said. “They use it as they wish and determine what they want to get out of what is offered.”

Cameron said the center offers more than counseling to achieve the desired goal of functionality. There is a computer lab, game room, thrift store, art studio, library, lounge room and a state-of-the-art fitness center.

Every facet of the facility is designed to mimic real life, not a mental institution, Cameron said.

“The emphasis is on getting people to their highest possible level — whether that’s working, volunteering or simply staying out of the state hospitals,” he said.

The concept is working. The facility has about 400 members that make approximately 20,000 visits a year. This is done with an operating budget that was $527,689 during fiscal year 2006 and is expected to exceed $600,000 in fiscal year 2007.

However, Cameron said knowing people once written off by society are now making personal gains is priceless. Gathering Hope House may be entering its third year, but it plans to stay for years to come.

“We have done a lot in two years, but there is so much more to be done,” he said. “We are constantly evolving our programs to fit the growing needs of our consumers. Now, it’s time to transition people to the work force. Being on Social Security is a life of being poor, but we’re here to say the mentally ill are so much more.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 653-6268 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.