On July 1, 2013 Fountain House officially opened its Bronx clubhouse located at 564 Walton Avenue. For over 18 years, the building was home to the Geel Clubhouse, operated by Geel Community Services, Inc. When their contract expired, the City invited Fountain House to take over. Fountain House President Kenn Dudek recognized a unique opportunity to expand organizational capacity in New York City and to document the process of implementing a clubhouse model, essentially from scratch. Kenn explains, “The Bronx clubhouse serves two very important purposes. First, it provides more New Yorkers living with mental illness the opportunity to become a part of Fountain House’s unique working community. Second, it gives us the chance to develop a high quality clubhouse from the ground up, experience that will enhance our efficacy as a global training base for the movement.”
In its first three weeks of operation, the Bronx clubhouse has seen a dramatic increase in attendance from less than 10 under Geel to over 30 members each day. Underutilized spaces have now been transformed into thriving hubs of activity and productivity, where members work together to develop the program, implement administrative processes, enjoy nutritious meals, and establish important friendships with their peers. Plans are underway to plant a vegetable garden in the backyard and prepare the currently unused patio space for summer barbeques.
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Michelle Rodriguez, the Bronx’s new Program Director, previously worked as the research unit leader at Fountain House. An enthusiastic advocate of the Fountain House approach, she was thrilled at the chance to help create a new working community.
“It’s the humanistic approach that draws me to the clubhouse model,” explains Michelle. “I started working as a mental health technician in a lockdown psychiatric hospital while I was still in college. I liked the people, but the environment wasn’t a good fit for me. The dynamic was very much ‘us and them,’ and I didn’t agree with it.”
Happily, Michelle discovered a different approach to mental health when she accepted a job at an independent clubhouse in South Florida. “I don’t know if the clubhouse found me or if I found the clubhouse. But on my first interview, I knew right away from the dialogue and discussion - and when it was a group of members and staff interviewing me - that this was the way it was supposed to be.”
After several years at that clubhouse, Michelle found her way to Fountain House and New York City. Initially, Michelle worked in Fountain House’s culinary unit; from there, she spent three years as a unit leader in research. “I moved up here completely alone with no family and no friends. But, I never felt alone. I think it is just part of the clubhouse culture. The Fountain House community is so welcoming and so embracing.”
Since becoming Program Director at the Bronx Clubhouse in July, Michelle has been planning, doing and, above all, collaborating with her community. “We visited the clubhouse here a couple of times before opening and there were four, maybe five, members. There wasn’t much going on. When we planned to open we weren’t sure what to expect - whether there would be resistance, whether we would have any members. Thankfully, the community has been incredible. We’ve gotten really positive feedback from our members who feel like they are much more involved now.”
But don’t take Michelle’s word for it. Listen to member Carol B. talk about her own experience with Fountain House and the Bronx Clubhouse.
Carol was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for two months after a lengthy decline and eventual breakdown. After her hospitalization, Carol found a job and her own apartment, but it didn’t last. “My experience has been that I move myself from place to place. My friends would give me a ride and I would just settle somewhere else. I’ve learned from studying psychology that people with mental illness do this. Getting situated has been very hard for me.”
Less hard, however, since Carol connected with Fountain House and, recently, the Bronx clubhouse. “Fountain House is the greatest. I like its good reputation because reputation is important to me. I trust the people I have met here. They understand where I am coming from and I don’t have to pretend anything to them. I like to be around people who go through the same things I go through, who speak my language. I go out with a group of friends from the clubhouse. We go to the Chinese Buffett, the movies, and on the Double Decker bus to see Manhattan. It has taken me back to high school when I had real friends.”
Carol keeps busy with appointments and cares for her grand niece and nephew on the weekends. But she still manages to come to the clubhouse three days a week. “Fountain House welcomes you. You can utilize the place to better yourself in terms of education and jobs.” In fact, Carol is working with a staff member to enroll in a psychology course. “I want one that deals with the mind and human nature.”
In addition to the daily tasks she performs at the clubhouse, which include “cleaning with the bathrooms, disinfecting the computers, putting together the newsletter,” Carol is a member of the Clubhouse New York Coalition and assists Clubhouse International (CI) by making presentations on the working community model. “It’s important to me to give of myself and give back to Fountain House.”
Development Officer, Fountain House