By Mary Ann Bourbeau
Members say sense of community, positive energy among highlights of program for those living with mental illness
RED BANK – When Susan Sandlass’ daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 14, Sandlass began her search for people and places that could help her child lead a normal, productive life.
Medication and therapists were a given, but she was looking for something more. She heard about the Fountain House in New York City, a transitional club where people living with mental illness come to develop friendships and support each other, and also to get help with services including health care, housing, schooling and employment.
In her search for a similar place in New Jersey, Sandlass found there were none. She set about to fill that void in Monmouth County and became a volunteer with the International Center for Clubhouse Development in New York City. Her goal was to start a similar model near her home; a place where members could participate in their own recovery process by working and socializing together in a safe and welcoming environment that complements their other psychiatric treatments.
Sandlass’ dream became reality when Shore House opened its doors in November. Membership is free, and participants meet once a week at the Woman’s Club of Red Bank, a Victorian house at 164 Broad St. that was built in 1870 and was formerly known as the Anthony Reckless Estate. Members participate in as many or as few of the activities as they like and also are involved in decisions that relate to the running of the clubhouse.
“I could have been a lady that lunches,” said Sandlass, a Rumson resident who serves as president of Shore House. Instead, she dedicates 50-plus unpaid hours each week to bring this service to the community. “This is what I’ve made my life’s work.”
Shore House members meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Friday. The Woman’s Club has donated the use of its building and will soon allow the group a second day each week. Members, who live with illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, take responsibility for the club by volunteering for different jobs such as setting up for lunch, gardening, clerical work, or making repairs in the Italianate villa-style building, which is being preserved by the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
Shore House is hosting its annual fundraising event on June 3 at the home of Rick and Mary Jane Kroon in Rumson. There is no charge to attend and reservations can be made by visiting www.shoreclubhouse.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Though the organization has received some corporate grants, most of the funding for its annual $350,000 operating budget comes from private donors.
The goal of Shore House’s staff and members is for the organization to one day own its own building and serve the community seven days a week,” said Sandlass. “If this town needed a library or a senior center, members of the community would band together to make that happen. This is just as important.”
Mary Husowech, 49, of Wall Township, can vouch for the difference Shore House has made in her life since her psychiatrist referred her several months ago. Husowech enjoys her time there because she feels accepted, unlike the way she feels with some of her family members, who she said don’t understand and are somewhat frightened by her dissociative identity disorder.
“I find Shore House very spiritually empowering,” she said. “There is positive energy here. My self-esteem has grown and I have more confidence. And getting in at the beginning of something new is exciting for me. Advocating for mental illness is a passion of mine.”
Husowech said the group has bonded so much that it feels like family now. “We focus on our strengths instead of our disabilities,” she said. “I’ve been in other programs that are good, but the sense of community is missing.”
Shore House’s goal is to one day be as successful as Fountain House, the original clubhouse model that serves 300 members a day. Since Fountain House opened in 1948, more than 400 clubhouses have been formed, serving people with mental illness in 28 countries. The clubhouse model claims reduced hospital stays and incarcerations, and longer on-the-job tenure for its members.
“We’re starting on the ground floor but the seed is growing,” Sandlass said. “We only have about 10 members now, but they keep coming back and more are calling every day. It’s a movement.”
Maria, a 50-year-old Tinton Falls resident who lives with bipolar disorder, recently came for a tour of Shore House on the advice of her cousin, who is a volunteer there. “It’s good to meet people with the same illness,” said Maria, who did not want to disclose her last name. “It’s a great organization and I hope it flowers. I’d like to be a part of it.”
Along with Shore House’s recently appointed executive director, Margaret Mary McNicholas (who is the only paid employee), the organization’s staff plans to develop relationships with educators to help members earn their GEDs, and also with employers in the community. If an employer hires a Shore House member for an entry-level job, the organization will guarantee zero absenteeism. This means if the employee can’t make it to work one day, another Shore House member will be sent to the job, so the employer risks nothing. This will help members transition back into the workforce and become productive members of the community.
Kerri Zeblisky spent three weeks training at Fountain House. She is not only a member of Shore House but now conducts presentations for the organization, vouching for its success by her own experience. “Shore House has given a lot to me,” the Red Bank resident said. “It has changed my perspective of how I view myself. I see myself as less of an illness and more of a person since coming here. It’s a wonderful model for people to really move on from programs in a medical setting. Some of the greatest artists and contributors to society have lived with mental illness.”
Pauline Nicholls-Anderson, an advisor for Shore House, raises funds and provides technical assistance. “I have worked for 20-plus years with the clubhouse movement because I believe it works,” she said. “I’ve seen people who have been institutionalized for many years who now live independently in the community and are thriving, getting their lives back on track. It’s the only thing I’ve seen in 30 years of working in human services that works that well.”
As for Sandlass, her daughter is now 25, lives independently in Florida and is a member of a clubhouse there. “She has a community of supporters that will always be there for her,” Sandlass said. “I know if something happens to me, my daughter will be OK.”