On January 15, 2016, Ronnie Peterson, 67, retired from Fountain House. It had been nearly 50 years since he first walked through our big green doors and became a member. “I had just come out of the hospital and was living in a single room occupancy hotel also on West 47th Street. I was all alone and on the verge of taking myself back to the hospital when my social worker told me about Fountain House. From her description, I wasn’t that interested. She said the people there were just like the ones who lived with me at the hospital. I wanted to leave all of that behind.”
If anyone knew psychiatric hospitals and the patients in them, it was Ronnie. He was institutionalized at age 8. “I remember the first time I went to the hospital. I was like 4 or 5. A man in a suit and tie peeked his head into my bedroom and watched me for a minute. The next day, my mother and I were on our way to Bellevue. I spent three months there and wound up returning shortly after. That time, my mom dropped me off and said she wasn’t coming back.” And she never did.
From Bellevue, Ronnie went to Rockland State and then Pilgrim State on Long Island where he lived until he was 19. In the hospital, he took field trips, learned to play the drums, worked in woodshop and made friends like any other teenager. “When I got out, I went to our apartment in Harlem looking for my mom. I knocked on the door and asked for Edna Peterson. But she was gone. The lady who answered the door said, ‘There’s no Edna Peterson here.’” Ronnie never saw his mother again.
Despite his initial hesitation, he decided to check Fountain House out for himself. “I walked over one evening and when I opened those green doors, I was shocked. Rugs on the floor, new furniture, chandeliers hanging, a winding staircase. Then, a guy comes over and says, 'Hey Ronnie.' We were in the hospital together. That made me feel more comfortable.”
Ronnie came back the next day and went to work in Fountain House’s Thrift Store, which at the time was on 9th Avenue. From there, he worked at several transitional employment placements, including a stint at Chock Full o’ Nuts, where practically the entire staff were Fountain House members. He worked at Alexander’s and Sears as well. He ran the snack bar and dining room at Fountain House too. In all of these positions, Ronnie always emerged as a natural leader and wound up training fellow members. That quality caught the eye of the late and great Fountain House Assistant Director, Esther Montanez, who, in 1971, called him to her office and made him an unexpected offer.
“She said, ‘How would you like to come on staff?’ I said, ‘Me? Come on staff?’ I had to take a week to think about it.” Obviously, Ronnie wound up accepting Esther’s offer and seamlessly transitioned into his new role. As staff, he never changed the way he related to members, working side-by-side with respect and a unique understanding for 45 years, making him one of the longest standing peer workers in the country.
Ronnie and Chris at Fountain House
“I met Ronnie in 1969,” says Fountain House member, Chris Bannon. “He was a great role model, both as a member and as staff, and has always been there for us. He was the best man at my wedding and was with me in the hospital when my wife gave birth to my daughter. Ronnie always told us, ‘you can be anything you want to be. Don’t let your mental illness hold you back.’ And we haven’t. I worked for the government for more than 20 years because of Ronnie.”
In addition to his many accomplishments at Fountain House, Ronnie built a life for himself that many with a similar childhood may have never achieved. He married, had children, became a grandfather and bought a home. He even testified before Congress in the 1970’s about mental illness and the need for community-based mental health centers like Fountain House.
When asked if he has a favorite Fountain House moment, he said, “There have been so many of those moments. Just seeing members trying to do something with their lives and be a part of the community. To do what normal people do…hold a job, get an apartment, get married.” Ronnie has helped countless members accomplish these things and live fuller lives.
In his testimony before Congress, Ronnie said, “If given a chance, we can do lots of things in the community if we have places to go and people who need us to contribute, to take part, to help and who notice when we’re not present. We just need to be in a place where there are “thank-you’s” for what we do.” For almost 50 years, Fountain House has been that place where Ronnie has contributed, taken part and helped himself and his peers. We will certainly notice that he is no longer present. As for “thank-you’s”, the entire Fountain House community thanks you, Ronnie, for devoting your life to helping others improve theirs.