Clubhouse Atlanta, a space where metro Atlanta adults with mental illness can go to get job training and, eventually, employment with outside businesses, would have been the perfect place for Susie Kyle’s son Bo, she said.
Bo, who had Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism, and problems with substance abuse and mental illness, died in an accident in September at age 39. The following month, Clubhouse Atlanta opened inside St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody.
“I’m thrilled to be able to offer this to other families that need it,” said Kyle, a Vinings resident who co-founded Clubhouse Atlanta with east Cobb resident Bill McClung, and both serve as board co-presidents. “People whose loved ones are sitting around the house or riding MARTA all over town, with no place to go, this is the place. This is a place for them to go to find a life, get the help they need, get support and make friends.”
Bo’s struggles with finding the right place to get help was a driving factor in starting Clubhouse Atlanta.
“My motivation is my son,” Kyle said. “My faith sustains me. My faith is really important to me and the Clubhouse is my mission. We could not find anything for Bo. He just couldn’t find an answer.”
Clubhouse Atlanta is modeled after Clubhouse International, a New York-based nonprofit that was founded in 1948 and has more than 300 locations in 34 countries. It aims to provide an eight-hour-a-day work schedule for its members at the clubhouse and to provide them with jobs with businesses outside the clubhouse, at their own pace.
Clubhouse International received a special Presidential Award from the American Psychiatric Association in May, and the World Health Organization included the Clubhouse model in its new guidance on mental health services in June.
“The concept is to help members practice work in a safe, controlled environment where they’re volunteering their time to run the day-to-day operations of the program – everything from helping with board meetings to preparing resumes and cover letters to interview prep. And through that, members, as they start to feel comfortable, get jobs through the community in a transitional program and other aspects like that,” said Freddy Morello, a Brookhaven resident and Clubhouse Atlanta’s executive director.
Clubhouse Atlanta also offers its members access to therapist, education if they need to get a GED or college degree, plus technical skills and wellness, McClung said. He and Kyle met about 15 years ago, when they started volunteering for the National Alliance on Mental Illness through its Northside and Georgia affiliates.
McClung’s daughter Katie had a mental illness similar to bipolar or multiple personality disorder and died eight years ago in an accident when she was only 32.
“She (also) had some pretty severe medical problems and lost a lot of weight,” he said. “ … Whenever I thought of the Clubhouse, I thought, ‘Boy, what a great place for her.’ She was a confident, beautiful young woman who sort of lost her way because of mental illness problems.”
McClung’s son Will, 58, has more minor mental health problems and is getting treatment at another facility.
Clubhouse Atlanta is one of three Clubhouse affiliates in Georgia, with another in Rome opening in July and one in Stone Mountain, which helps only mentally ill individuals with traumatic brain injuries, opening at least 20 years ago.
Clubhouse Atlanta’s services are free for all members, and anyone with a mental illness can join. Morello said it has 27 active members and an average daily attendance of seven to eight members on the days it’s open (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays).
The organization’s goal, he added, is to have an average daily attendance of 40 serving 100 to 150 members by the end of next year and to expand to five days a week with occasional weekend hours. Clubhouse Atlanta is completely funded through donations (individuals, businesses and foundations) but may look into government funding in the future.
Morello, a former New York City Police Department officer, has worked for Clubhouse locations in New York, Massachusetts and Florida before joining the Atlanta one last year and is on the faculty for Clubhouse International.
“Being involved with Clubhouse International for as long as I have, 13 years next month, there’s such a need in Georgia in general but specifically in metro Atlanta, (where) there’s so many people living with a mental illness, and there’s not many programs out there,” he said. “There’s rehab and other programs, but this hands-on approach we have is to make others feel wanted, needed and accepted into their communities.
“We’re not giving people a hand out but a hand up to get back into their communities with their families, friends and neighbors. Just working with the community to get as many people in our doors is super exciting.”
Morello added he enjoys seeing members progress into individuals who can work outside a Clubhouse.
“(It’s) seeing someone who came in who might have been isolated but is now interacting with their peers,” he said. “(It’s) someone who was uncomfortable in front of a computer but is now running databases and spreadsheets for us. It kind of gets me moving forward.”
For more information, visit clubhouseatlanta.org.