Original story location:
Reintegration & Recovery - Fountain House Community Center
Fountain House Clubhouse
New York City
The year was 1948 and a group of courageous New Yorkers with mental illness, some having been locked away in hospitals or other institutions for more than three decades, was about to change their own lives and the lives of countless others around the world.
Galvanized by their creed, "We Are Not Alone", these visionaries embraced a then-revolutionary idea - that by openly joining together and working side-by-side rather than retreating in isolation, they would encourage one another to make effective new lives outside of the hospital. From their efforts, Fountain House - the world's first Clubhouse
True to their vision, the founders created a membership organization run for and by persons with mental illness. They searched for a meeting place with no bars on the windows and, more importantly, no limitations on the dreams of the members. Over time, they found a home with a small fountain in the back that served as a constant symbol of hope and renewal, and from it came the Clubhouse's name.
More than 50 years later, the original vision is alive and a true community has grown up, consisting of more than 16,000 members who have both found a place to belong and discovered that they are not alone. Helping link that community to the broader metropolitan area is a network of corporate employers offering real jobs at competitive wages; schools and colleges providing pathways to the completion of educations; physicians and psychiatrists offering a full array of community-based care; and a dedicated staff and Board working tirelessly to pursue common goals.
This community is open and available 365 days a year and provides a comprehensive range of services designed to foster self-worth and facilitate reintegration into the mainstream of life. As Kenneth Dudek, Executive Director, says, "What Fountain House has always been about is hope."
Through the years, Fountain House has grown into a complex of modern, attractive buildings on W. 47th Street, as well as four other residences throughout New York City and a 480-acre farm in New Jersey. Like all Clubhouses, Fountain House is run by members and staff working side-by-side every day.
Members carry out many of the functions of the Clubhouse, from routine clerical duties to a unique Research program through which mental health consumers and professional academics (including some former members) collaborate on important grant-funded research on essential Clubhouse programs. Says Mr. Dudek, "We've always believed strongly in the people behind the illness, and in the relationships between the staff and our members. That is our founding principle."
Fountain House currently serves roughly 1,300 members, ranging from 16 to 80 years of age. One of its newest programs is the Young Adult Initiative, which includes intensive college outreach. This program identifies and works with young people at an early stage of their illness, in order to provide resources that will enable them to stay in school and keep their lives together.
Like all Clubhouses, Fountain House places an intense emphasis on employment programming, in the belief, according to Mr. Dudek, that "Work is what gives people their identity." Strong programs exist for Transitional, Supported, and Independent Employment, based on partnerships with such high-profile corporations as American Express Publishing, Dow Jones, and Newsweek.
Two recurring special events center on the partnerships Fountain House has developed to provide employment opportunities for persons with serious and persistent mental illness. The "Employers' Evening", which is more than 20 years old, is a celebration for employers from around New York City who employ Clubhouse members through Fountain House employment programs. Attendance runs into the hundreds, as both front-line company supervisors and senior corporate officials mix with Fountain House members. Says Mr. Dudek, "This event is a way for the corporate world to get to know us better up close and become even more a part of our community."
For the past four years, Fountain House has also hosted a special "Corporate Awards Dinner", both to honor major employment partners and to raise funds for the organization. Honorees have included such companies as HBO and Dow Jones, and attendees include corporate giants such as D'Arcy, Masius, Benton, and Bowles, one of the country's largest ad agencies and a committed employment partner for more than 20 years. The most recent dinner honored Vincent Mai, husband of Board President Anne Mai and developer of jobs for many Fountain House members through the years.
One of Fountain House's most recent initiatives is a public art gallery located in a storefront on 9th Avenue. Members, many of whom have dreams of becoming working artists and photographers, create all items displayed. Works are both shown and sold. A primary idea underlying the gallery's development is that given the proper display, members' evident talent can do much to help combat the public stigma of mental illness.
A unique feature of Fountain House is High Point Farm, the 480-acre New Jersey property. Members rotate through this working farm, given to Fountain House by a farmer whose son had mental illness. High Point encompasses both a tree farm and a home for alpaca, llamas, and other animals. The farm provides members not only with an opportunity to do meaningful work, but also with a healing rural environment where they can swim, hike, and go boating.
Fountain House is also home to the Advocacy Resource Center, in which people learn to successfully advocate for themselves, for others, and for improvements in the mental health system. One of the Center's recent successes was its major role in securing passage of the MTA Half Fare Fairness Act, which required the Metropolitan Transit Authority to end a discriminatory practice by expanding its Reduced Fare Program to S.S.I. recipients with serious mental illness.
Frances Olivero, a member of Fountain House and Co-Chair of the Advocacy Resource Center, and Fred Levine, Counsel to Fountain House's Executive Director, spearheaded the Clubhouse's effort. They traveled to Albany together to meet with legislators, held rallies, and distributed literature to increase support throughout New York's mental health community.
After the bill was passed, a celebration was held at Fountain House with the legislative sponsors, Senator Frank Padavan (R- Queens) and Assemblyman James Brennan (D- Brooklyn). Sadly, Mr. Olivero passed away just days before Governor George Pataki actually signed the bill making the Half Fare Fairness program effective.
Speaking about his partnership with Mr. Olivero, Fred Levine - who was himself diagnosed with bipolar illness in 1975 - notes, "Every day I worked with Frances was a gift. He was insightful, energetic, passionate about human rights, and he had a unique ability to bring people together and make them listen. He was the heart and soul of the Fairness Campaign."
Clearly, Mr. Levine believes that important things can happen when persons with mental illness are empowered.
Perhaps the best testament to Fountain House occurred immediately after the September 11th tragedy. Located in the heart of New York City, Fountain House had a unique opportunity for service as the result of that day's horrific events.
Says Mr. Dudek, "We stayed open all night. It seemed as though everyone connected with Fountain House over the past 15 years and who was in Manhattan that day came flooding through our doors. They obviously thought of us as their safe haven."
It is evident that the vision and hope of Fountain House's original members - "We Are Not Alone" - is still a guiding principle at Fountain House today.
Visit Fountain House online at www.fountainhouse.org.