WENATCHEE — “New Beginnings” reads a sign next to the door. The door swings open and closed with great frequency each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It leads to a room in the old church shared by Catholic Family and Child Services. Outside, cars stream by on busy Mission Street.
Things are busy inside too, but friendlier. The mobile home-shaped room bustles with animated conversation, people coming and going, and a sharing of hugs, handshakes, salutations and goodbyes.
About a dozen people sit at a long table talking with each other, talking to others on cell phones, filling out forms and writing in notebooks. Others sit on one of two couches, talking while working on art projects. One man is having a conversation with himself. Two women work on computers, oblivious to the commotion around them.
New Beginnings is a door through which people with various levels of mental illness pass on their way to greater stability and confidence, the group’s many members say. The room behind that door is also one of the safest places they can be. It’s a place where they are treated with respect and dignity while they work on personal goals with the help of others with similar experiences.
“You can come in here and just be yourself. There’s respect for who and what people are and what they can become,” said Stuart Eumig, 67, a peer counselor and charter member of the group. “The best therapy is often successful life experiences. We help people have those. This is a place where you can spread your wings,” he said.
“This is the room where you don’t have to feel crazy, even if you are,” Pat Forney added with a laugh. She is a member who also helped form the group three years ago after a similar group, the Promise Club, closed down for lack of funding.
“We’re very focused on recovery,” said Susie Tryon, the program’s director. “We help people get where they want to get.”
Tryon said membership covers the full gamut of mental illness, including all levels of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and many other diagnoses. “We have it all, from the easiest to the most difficult,” she said.
Thanks to drugs and counseling, most have a good handle on their situations by the time they come to the group, she said.
The club gets by on meager state grants that total about $3,000 a month and lots of volunteer work, she said. She plans to expand the days the room is open from three to five a week, but looming state budget cuts are a big concern.
“If we didn’t have this place, where would these people go?” she asked. “There’s nothing else like this. A lot of people would just stay in their rooms.”
The group has about 150 members. Between 20 and 30 come in each day the room is open. Some come every day they can and stay as long as they can. Others come only when they need help, said Casey Cass, coordinator for the group.
The group is about people with mental illness helping each other. They teach each other how to get help with primary care, social services, housing, jobs, food stamps, travel and many other things that people without mental illness take for granted, he said.
“No one claims to be a professional, but all have been through the system a number of times,” said Cass, a certified counselor and physician’s assistant who can advise on mental and physical health care and drugs. Classes are held, support groups and networks are formed, movies are shown, arts and craft projects are always encouraged. People come and go as they wish, he said. Paperwork is kept to a minimum and everything is kept as informal as possible.
“The big thing is that people feel accepted here. They aren’t going to be chastised for hearing voices or if they say something strange,” Cass said.
In reality, people in the long, narrow room don’t seem strange or crazy. The room overflowed with activity and bubbled with liveliness on a recent visit. The environment was warm, friendly, direct and honest. While Eumig and Forney had no problem being named or photographed, several others didn’t want to be identified except by their first name. Members feel safe and confident in the New Beginnings clubhouse, but they are painfully aware of the stigma a mental illness label carries elsewhere.
“This is a place for us to come and make connections and friends who can keep in touch through the week. We call each other when we have a need,” said one member who has passed the difficult tests to become one of several peer counselors in the group. She asked that her name not be used. “I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am. This helps me remain stable. Peer support saves lives. If I come here on a bad day, I always leave with a smile on my face.”
She said mental illness is a disease, often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Like diabetes and other diseases, mental illness can be fatal without treatment.
Charlotte, 67, said she came to the group less than two years ago after being hospitalized for a mental breakdown and addiction to painkilling medications she started taking for a knee ailment.
“It put me into the blackest hole,” she said. “It’s taken me a long time to get over it. I went to therapy but couldn’t afford that anymore so I started coming here. This is a great place to get support. My family gets real tired of hearing about mental illness. Here, you can talk about it and not feel apologetic.”
Ebbie, 63, said she came to the group in a horrible emotional state, always irritable and angry. Now she’s a peer counselor who can help others.
“It helps me to see how far others have come and how they’ve blossomed here,” she said. “We all feel like family.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151