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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, June 20, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesNot for Profit: Clear Blue Sky Clubhouse

Not for Profit: Clear Blue Sky Clubhouse

Leia Benjamin offers a tour of the clubhouse.It’s an ordinary morning at the Clear Blue Sky Clubhouse. About a dozen people are in discussion around a table, receiving their work assignments for the day. Someone is going to work in the commissary. Another is going to input data on the computer. Someone else has kitchen duty.

Leia Benjamin is the assigned guide for the day and she takes a visitor on the grand tour of the organization’s new digs at the former Villa Fairview at 8A Catherineberg, just around the winding road from the governor’s official residence.

The massive, historic building may be showing its age, but it also exudes charm. And it affords a breathtaking view of the harbor.

Benajmin points out the room where members eat breakfast and lunch together; the storage area where cartons of bathrobes donated by the Maasdam cruise ship wait to become part of a planned thrift shop; the terrace with chairs donated by another cruise ship, the Emerald Princess; the commissary where members can buy ice cream and other snacks, the recreation area used on weekends and special occasions; the courtyard with flowering bushes; the walls in several rooms decorated with artwork by members.

Inside and out, clubhouse members and staff are busy working.

This is a place of structure and support, a place where people recovering from mental illness can shed its stigma and work their way back into their community and live full lives again.

It is the “child” and the dream of Clear Blue Sky founder Arlene Monaghan, whose own introduction to mental illness was personal.

“I lived 25 years with a husband who suffered from what they used to call manic depression; now the term is bipolar disorder.” Neither of them understood his mood swings in the early years of their marriage but they knew his condition was destroying their relationship. “You ride the good times and you fear the bad times,” she said.

Monaghan said the couple studied and learned together about mental illness. Through treatment and medication her husband’s condition was stabilized. He was a computer programmer, and she became his assistant. They worked things out and enjoyed a life together.

“Suppose other people had that?” Monaghan said. That idea led her to co-found the Family Support Network in 1986, which later became a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

About eight years ago, she began what was essentially a support group, with a handful of people meeting twice a week in her home, preparing and sharing meals, and going together on outings. Out of that grew Karen’s House, a residence for people recovering from mental illness, as well as a day program aimed at helping people back into the workforce. From Karen, one of the first members, Monaghan learned that the government had briefly operated a “Clubhouse” on St. Thomas.

An international program, the Clubhouse concept matched well with what Monaghan was already doing and she is now affiliated with the program.

The International Center for Clubhouse Development was created in 1994 to serve and represent the rapidly growing clubhouse community. Four rights of membership are at the core of the clubhouse model: the right to a place to come; the right to meaningful relationships; the right to meaningful work; and the right to a place to return.

The idea is to give people a safe environment in which to develop job skills and inculcate good work habits. Members and staff of a clubhouse work side-by-side to manage all the operations of the Clubhouse. Every member has tasks to perform on a regular basis.

When a person is ready, he or she moves into a temporary, transitional job, guided and sponsored by Clear Blue Sky. At the beginning, a staff member accompanies the member to the job each day.

“Our first time transitional employment happened at Guardian Insurance,” Monaghan said. She praised manager Sue Boland for making it happen. The office staff was all doing its own shredding and envelope-stuffing, so she had them put that work aside for a Clubhouse employee.

“She carved out a job,” Monaghan said.

After six months as a transitional employee, the member is ready to look for a regular job, and another Clubhouse member can take on the transitional employment.

Clear Blue Sky serves people of all ages, but its employment program seems to work best for young people who have not become accustomed to being looked after, but rather are ready to do things for themselves.

“I had one man tell me ‘I know how to be a patient,’ ” Monaghan said. “We don’t want them to get used to that culture of being a patient.”

Currently, there are about 10 people who are ready for jobs, Monaghan said, but she doesn’t have placements for them.

In its few years of existence, Clear Blue Sky has touched about 100 people, and right now Monaghan estimates it has about 40 “active” members, meaning people who have been at the Clubhuse in the last 90 days. There are also some people who stop by or call periodically just to “touch base” but who are functioning on their own in the community.

Besides the ongoing programs, the organization has a major project in renovating and restoring Villa Fairview. The Legislature appropriated $250,000 for its purchase, but a lot more will be needed to turn its labyrinth of rooms on multiple levels into usable space while preserving the architectural history of the structure.

The goal is to move the residential program into one portion of the building and continue with the Clubhouse in another portion. Ordinarily, Clubhouse regulations prohibit the use of the same building for both residence and the job program, on the premise that members should experience the usual situation of “going to” work. But Monaghan said the V.I. program is getting a waiver, on condition that it maintains two separate outside entrances.

Another project for Monaghan is turning her enthusiasm into a set of policy and procedures, and affiliating with the international Clubhouse program is helping to facilitate that.

“I’m going a lot by heart,” she said. “But we are creating a structure” so those who follow will know what to do.

The basic concept, she said, is simple. “Many times it’s just making room for people to grow. You don’t have to do anything.”

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