Watching Jack move through the busy Parkland Health Center kitchen, being greeted by his co-workers or methodically loading restaurant-size cans of beans and tomatoes onto storeroom shelves, you might think he’s a longtime PHC employee who’s spent a career in food service.
But Jack only began working in the PHC kitchen in mid-March. Other than a short stint as a dishwasher during his high school years, his kitchen experience consisted of working in the kitchen and learning to use the industrial grade dishwasher in the Friends in Action (FIA) Clubhouse kitchen.
Jack is the second FIA Clubhouse member to be hired at PHC through the Clubhouse’s transitional employment (TE) program, and, if his experience is any indication, he may not be the last.
For members of the FIA Clubhouse in Farmington, meaningful work, whether at the Clubhouse itself, or in the community, is an important component of their recovery from serious, persistent mental health issues. (See sidebar, below.)
TE is designed to be a first step for members who want to try working at a job in the community, but who may have been out of the workplace for years or who never have been employed. The program helps members gain or regain the skills, confidence and habits they need to be successful at work, says Clubhouse supervisor Anna Portell.
It teaches members that even as they deal with mental health issues, they can contribute and be productive. It can also teach that lesson to their employers — some have offered Clubhouse members permanent positions after their TE placement ended.
“For Clubhouse members, work is more than just money,” says Portell. “It’s about combating all the stigmas they face.”
The FIA Clubhouse TE program depends on building relationships, starting with the Clubhouse community support specialists reaching out to employers and businesses in the community that are willing to participate in the program and have jobs suited to Clubhouse members.
For some employers, taking a chance on hiring a Clubhouse member can be a little “scary” because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, says Portell. But support specialists work to build trust with the employers by keeping an open line of communication throughout Clubhouse members’ work placement.
Ideally, TE jobs are part-time, entry level and repetitive — relatively low stress, easy to learn and succeed at — so members can concentrate on related issues.
“Can I get up every day? Can I get ready in time? Can I catch my ride to work? These are things they focus on,” says Portell.
When a Clubhouse member expresses interest in filling a particular job opening, community support specialists coordinate directly with employers, so the member won’t have the stress of going through an interview process.
Specialists also train alongside members and accompany them on the first week or two of the job to troubleshoot any issues. And if the member can’t work for any reason, the specialist will step in and cover the shift.
“We’re able to guarantee the employer 100 percent coverage,” Portell says.
Although support specialists are ready and willing to take over shifts when necessary, they seldom have to, says Amber O’Neal, FIA Clubhouse community support specialist. “I’ve never had to go in and wash dishes. Although it might be a nice change of pace.”
Clubhouse members currently work or have worked cleaning offices for Fit To Be Clean cleaning service, taking apart and sanitizing pill containers at Health Direct Pharmacy, and stocking shelves, making coffee and filling dispensers at River Mart gas and convenience store.
A placement at Parkland
BJC Behavioral Health and Parkland Health Center have a strong relationship for many reasons, such as the collaboration on the Senior Support Center, a 16-bed geriatric inpatient unit at PHC. Many people thought PHC would be a great TE worksite. Just around the corner from the FIA Clubhouse, PHC has positions in housekeeping, food and nutrition, and other areas that would be well-suited to Clubhouse members.
At the request of Karen Miller, BJC Behavioral Health-Southeast associate director, and Anna Portell, representatives met with Tom Karl, PHC president, and his leadership team to explain the TE program. With total buy in and commitment, subsequent meetings were scheduled between the Clubhouse and PHC staff to develop a plan and begin the hiring process for the TE slot.
When Amber O’Neal joined BJC Behavioral Health in October 2017, she focused on getting a second member placed in a TE position at PHC. Eventually, PHC food and nutrition was able to hire another Clubhouse member for the TE position, and the Clubhouse partnered with Tammy Crites, manager of the department.
Jack on the job
Jack, 59, grew up in Illinois, though he had relatives in the Farmington area. He lived part of his adult life in Arizona and Chicago before moving to Farmington and joining FIA Clubhouse in 2010.
He wasn’t convinced that Clubhouse was a good fit for him, so after six months, he quit. But his support specialist wrote Jack a letter, telling him the other members and staff were concerned and missed him.
“I figured if they cared enough to write a letter, I’d better try again,” he says. He’s been a constant presence at FIA Clubhouse ever since, even moving into the Friendship House apartments nearby.
He had told Clubhouse staff that he was interested in trying a TE position, and the PHC placement sounded like a good opportunity. O’Neal and other staff and members helped him get comfortable with the equipment in the Clubhouse kitchen before he and O’Neal trained at PHC this March.
Though he hadn’t worked in a commercial kitchen since high school, he took to the work immediately. He started doing dishes, but soon moved to other tasks, such as stocking pantry shelves, preparing trays and being an extra set of hands wherever needed, says O’Neal.
“They found they could give him more responsibility and he had the ability to handle it,” she says.
“The best part of working there is the people,” says Jack. “They’re the nicest. I thought people like that were extinct.”
The PHC food and nutrition staff returns the feeling. “We like having Jack here,” says Crites. They liked having him so much that they offered him a full-time job. (His disability and resulting benefits didn’t allow him to accept.)
But Crites says she is willing to have more Clubhouse members placed in TE positions in food and nutrition, and Portell is excited about the possibility of partnering with PHC on TE placements in housekeeping or other areas.
But the most exciting thing about Jack’s TE experience at PHC has been the effect it’s had on Jack, says Karen Miller.
“It’s always a pleasure to watch an individual bloom and grow. So it is with Jack, who has made tremendous strides in his life today in his journey of recovery,” she says. “With the persistence of the Behavioral Health staff plus teamwork, and a strong partnership with Jack, those things are now happening. Jack is a role model to so many and he has really worked hard to become more independent and help others. I am always delighted to see Jack’s smile — a smile of pride, purpose and success!”
The importance of work for Clubhouse
Clubhouse is a rehabilitation model for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. Rather than focusing on the illness, Clubhouse focuses on members’ strengths and abilities, providing them opportunities to integrate back into society.
“Clubhouse is about meeting people where they are,” says Amber O’Neal, FIA Clubhouse community support specialist. It offers its members a supportive, safe community.
But a central principle of Clubhouse is the chance for members to participate in meaningful work. In fact, Clubhouse is structured around a “work-ordered” day.
At FIA Clubhouse, for instance, members and staff attend twice-a-day meetings to talk about the day’s work, and then complete that work together as they build collegial relationships. This includes everything from administrative and clerical tasks, to running the kitchen and preparing lunch five days a week, to cleaning and maintaining the facility.
Additionally, members may create art for projects including the annual calendar and art sale that benefit FIA Clubhouse; work in the Clubhouse’s floral shop, which is open to the public; work out in the facility’s Wellness Center; or participate in social events like movie nights or holiday parties.
Clubhouse also supports and encourages members to work in the community. While some members do that independently, others may need more support to enter or return to the workforce. For them, the Clubhouse transitional employment (TE) program is available to help.