Reflections On My Time At Fountain House

Posted on August 12, 2015

Upon receiving my Master of Social Work (MSW) in 2010, I did what any new graduate does in New York City: Began the long and arduous process of trying to find a job through the countless and hopeless postings on several websites. Each time I sent in my resume, I was sure that it was going into a black hole with thousands of other applicants’ as well. Therefore, when I received a call from a place called Fountain House, I was shocked. An organization out there had an interest in me? Who were these people? I frantically checked the website, and was immediately intimidated. This organization looked incredible. The pictures of people…working in large spaces, smiling, laughing, with beautiful backdrops of what looked like someone’s fancy home, a library and brick-walled patio. Was this place for real? And if it was, why on earth would they be interested in an amateur like me?

Obviously, I accepted the offer to come in for an interview just to see the place. I had no idea what a clubhouse was, had no experience in mental health, a strengths-based model or community building. As I walked down 47th Street looking for this Fountain House, I was confused. Was this beautiful red brick mansion, (that was near Starbucks) it? Was I in the right spot? Apparently, yes!

I met Paul in the HR office down the street and he took me on a tour of Fountain House. It was amazing! Each unit was welcoming, friendly and bustling with activity. I couldn’t believe all of the different projects that were happening. Everyone seemed so busy. Everyone was acting with such purpose. Everyone seemed to belong. I knew that I wanted to belong too. Then came the interview. Thirty people sat down in the Education Unit and then the Clerical (now Communication) Unit and asked me questions about myself. Most people say that this is intimidating and overwhelming, but as a middle child, I love the opportunity to sit in a room with a large group of people and talk about myself. Not to mention, the people I was meeting were encouraging, nice, intelligent, and had good senses of humor. I loved every moment of it. I couldn’t wait to call my mom (as one does), when I left, to tell her how much I loved Fountain House. So, when I was offered a job here, I took it immediately. I felt like the luckiest new social worker in the city.

Phil and Bevin

My first day at Fountain House is one that I will never forget. I remember the first words that my new boss, Susan said to me: “The good news is, you’re here. The bad news is, we’re moving.” Moving? I had worn my brand new working gal dress to my first day, and we were going to be moving furniture and supplies all day? I was terrified! But it turned out to be exactly the introduction someone should have to a place like Fountain House. I got to work with lots of different people and learn about our members. Everyone was so nice. Everyone was offering to help carry this, or vacuum that rug, or organize the shelves, or hold the door or lift up that table. It was fun. I wasn’t expecting my first social work job to be fun, nor was I expecting moving furniture all day to be fun, but that is what is so special about Fountain House. The way each day is designed to work with people and build both relationships and friendships, it was easy to enjoy myself. And I have done so for the past five years.

Bevin and Dice

I’ve been lucky to have been able to work in two different units during my time here. My projects here have been so varied, and have taught me so much. From rebuilding the literary art magazine, known as the Fountain Pen (and figuring out, after several errors, to print from Publisher), to doing statistical reports on the unit attendance and activities, to learning a lot about people’s lives and recovery through progress notes (one time we actually did get 100% complete!) to researching GED programs, making reach-out trips and calls, to coordinating the scholarships, to organizing a computer donation program in which our members can get free technology, it has been such a wonderful opportunity to try new things, work with all sorts of people, and build working communities around a common goal.

Not to mention, working at Fountain House means getting to go to a beautiful farm and work in a real garden and tend to actual animals, help members go back to work and learn their way around a high-powered investment firm that has breathtaking views of downtown Manhattan, to volunteering at swanky and fabulous fundraising events, and attending an actual film festival each year (while getting to exercise my acting muscles). I was able to do evening “work” like listening to members’ poetry while eating cheese and crackers and watching the sunset, to making paper airplanes, and having a book discussion on Fountain House by Alan, Kenn and Julie, while eating cookies and tea. I’ve been able to represent our House in both Massachusetts and Missouri, while learning even more about the Clubhouse movement. I’ve been dunked in a dunk tank. I’ve played badminton on the patio. I’ve been able to help organize an official annual 5K. I have been able to experience the five star dining event that is Thanksgiving. I have spoken in front of my entire high school about what life as a social worker can be like. As you can see, it can truly be an incredible ride if you work at Fountain House.

Bevin and Heather

My post graduate education at Fordham University doesn’t hold a candle to the skills that I have learned during my time at Fountain House. I’ve learned how to change the water in a Poland Spring cooler. How to power wash an economy-sized stove. How to drive a minivan full of computers through the financial district. How to clean a chicken coop. How to properly fold napkins for Thanksgiving. How to use Access databases. How to operate a switchboard. How (some, certainly not all) various government benefits work. How to multitask to a level I didn’t think was possible. I’ve learned that everyone in this world needs a place to go to in the morning where they feel needed and where they feel they have a purpose. How anyone can go to work or school or succeed, given the support and encouragement they need. How people living with mental illness, although the most inspiring group of individuals I know, are still just that: People. Individuals. I’ve learned that stigma can stop with me. I’ve learned that if you get to know just about anyone, you find how valuable and important each person is.

The friendships and relationships that I have built here will be carried with me wherever I go. I am going to miss coming to this place so much, because the people here are so fantastic. When I think of Alvin bringing me Vitamin Water Zeros and People magazines, and working on scholarships with Vinny, dancing with Phil and Bobby, or working with Libby on her budget, and singing with David or Tashawna while cleaning the bathrooms, seeing Peter wearing green every Friday in honor of the Irish, or catching up with Betty about her artwork, internships, jobs, and speeches she gives, breakfast and lunch dates with Alan, goofing around on weekends with Chris and JJ, cooking with Chaitanya, Neal telling me about his trips, Hershey kisses from Carol, Juan dancing to music at the end of the day, acting in Happy’s movies, cards from Marilyn and Donna, calls to say hi from Ricardo, sass from Denise, epic days in Queens with Cyrus, hugs from Efie and Val, jokes from Deb, and everything else in between with the dozens of good friends that I have made….it is a sum of the incredible and irreplaceable sense of community this House has.

Bevin and Chaitanya

I know that even though I won’t be seeing everyone each day, I will still be a part of this community. Fountain House is not just a job, it is a second family to me. It’s where I learned what it means to be a true social worker, where I made friendships that will last for years to come, and even where I met my husband! I want to thank this wonderful organization for allowing me to work here for these past five years. I am so proud to be a part of Fountain House. I’m sure I will be visiting soon, but until then, I’ll be keeping you all in my thoughts.

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