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We’re all in this together: Vail Place’s clubhouse model focuses on collective work for mental health

Paula Anderson Photography
Vail Place's Minneapolis clubhouse on 1412 West 36th Street.

Work is important to Julie Tate. Even though she has multiple diagnoses of serious mental health issues, she likes to center her life on meaningful activities that give her a sense of purpose. So, 13 years ago, when she was in the market for a supportive place to spend her days, Tate toured Vail Place, a clubhouse program for people with serious and persistent mental illness. It felt like a perfect match.

At Vail Place, members run the program side by side with paid staff members. They all take on the tasks required to make the program operate smoothly.

“It’s not fake work,” Tate said. “Our work here is meaningful. In the past, I went to drop-in centers and I felt like I was being babysat. I’m college educated: I don’t need to sit around and knit all day. I needed something more. When I came to Vail Place for a tour, I saw what was happening here and I liked it. So I came back.”

Center serves about 900 members

What happens at Vail Place is the serious work of building and running a community center that serves some 900 members and employs 50 paid staff. At Vail, members do everything from purchasing food for the snack bar, cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms, writing and starring in original theatrical productions, hiring and training new staff members, to serving on the clubhouse’s board of directors.

Days at Vail Place revolve around a carefully scheduled “work-order” day, where members volunteer for and complete specific tasks. The work schedule isn’t an excuse to take advantage of free labor, Tate explains, but rather a therapeutic approach to living successfully with mental illness. Having meaningful tasks to complete at specific times each day keeps the mind busy and distracted and gives life a sense of purpose, she said.   

“On my first full day at Vail Place, they were planning an international conference that was going to be held here. They asked if I wanted to join the meeting and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll join.’ Then, after that experience, I started to say yes to other tasks, and all of the sudden my life started to have meaning and purpose again. I couldn’t die because I said I would do this job. I couldn’t stay in bed because somebody needed me at the clubhouse. I still have suicidal thoughts now and then, but I don’t plan suicide anymore because I have purpose in my life. And most of that comes from here.”

Origins of the clubhouse

Vail Place was founded in Hopkins in 1981 by a group of local activists who were looking for a community center for family members with serious mental illness, many of whom had been recently released from state psychiatric hospitals. 

Mental health reform meant that people who had lived for years in institutions like the state psychiatric hospitals [PDF] in Faribault and St. Peter were released into the community with little daily structure and even less support, explained Vicky Couillard, Vail Place executive director.

In the late 1970s, Couillard said, “There was a group of fairly influential family members and psychologists in the Twin Cities who wanted to create a resource in the community for their loved ones. They looked at a variety of different models and eventually settled on the clubhouse model.”

The clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation focuses on building support and opportunities for people with serious and persistent mental illness. The first clubhouse program was established in 1948 in New York City by a group of people who had recently been released from a state psychiatric hospital. Like the founding program, known as Fountain House, all clubhouse programs focus on members’ individual strengths and abilities, rather than on than their mental illnesses. Today there are more than 300 clubhouse programs worldwide.

Vicky Couillard
Vicky Couillard

Minnesota’s clubhouse was named for Dr. David Vail, former medical director of the state’s Department of Public Welfare.

“He was in charge of all of the state psychiatric hospitals,” Couillard said. “He had a vision about moving people from the state hospitals into community programs. He was ahead of his time. He died at a young age, so he was never able to see his vision implemented.” Tate explained that all clubhouse programs operate under the same 36 standards, guiding principles that shape the way clubhouses operate.

“The standards cover all of our operations internationally,” Couillard said, “everything from the work-order day to employment to relationships to housing. Standards also address governance and administration and fundraising.”

Today, Vail Place operates out of two clubhouses: The Hopkins branch, at 15 9th Avenue South, and Minneapolis, at 1412 West 36th Street. The program is looking to expand into the East metro, with a third clubhouse location in St. Paul.

“We’re talking to a couple of other nonprofits and looking at co-locating together just off University Avenue, within walking distance of the light rail,” Couillard said. “We’ve looked at a few sites. It’s just finding something that will fit for all of the partners.”

All work — and some play

On weekdays, Vail Place operates under a tight schedule. That’s just the way Tate likes it.

“From 9-12 we do the work of the club,” she said. “We keep attendance statistics, make outreach calls, do cleaning, cooking, running to the bank, the general running of the building.”

Vail Place clubhouse members working together in the clubhouse kitchen.
Paula Anderson Photography
Vail Place clubhouse members working together in the clubhouse kitchen.

There aren’t enough paid staffers to do the work of the clubhouse, Tate explained, so it is expected that members will carry their weight. “We have to do stuff,” she said. “It’s all voluntary, but you still find people doing work.”

After a lunch break at noon, there is time for playing pool, going online and general socializing, but by 1 p.m., activity picks up again: “We get together for another meeting, and we volunteer for more tasks,” Tate said. “That’s till 3 or 3:30. Then we do social activities like other adults would do after work.” 

Work in the community

While members’ clubhouse work is all unpaid, Vail Place also offers members an opportunity to train for paid work in the community, at local employers like Kowalski’s markets, Famous Dave’s and Xcel Energy.  

“Vail Place will go out and find job sites,” Couillard said. A paid staffer then trains alongside the clubhouse member, so they can support them in their work and step in if the member can’t come to work because of illness or hospitalization. That way, “there is guaranteed continuous employment,” she said.

In past decades, people with serious and persistent mental illness were considered incapable of holding a job, Tate said. But that’s not the case for everyone. Supportive employment-training programs like the one at Vail Place have shown that many people with serious mental illness can thrive at work.  

“We take a ‘whole-person’ approach to everything we do,” Couillard said. Serious mental illness affects each person differently, and many benefit from trust — and time spent working in responsible jobs: “A lot of members from Vail Place have taken the training and gone on to great careers.” With its supportive, ordered, can-do atmosphere, “The clubhouse is a natural starting ground for that.”

Tate is happy to testify to that fact.

“Work gives you a sense of purpose,” she said. “You could be having a really lousy day, but when you come here, you get your mind off it because somebody needs you to teach somebody how do something, or someone is depending on you to get a job done. When you are busy working, you don’t concentrate on what’s wrong, you can concentrate on what’s right. It’s side-by-side work. The work isn’t therapy. It’s growth. It’s ‘I cans’ rather than ‘I can’ts.’ And that’s important for mental health and survival.”

Dr. Vail Hour

A nonprofit, Vail Place’s operations are supported by grants and donations. One of the biggest fundraisers is the annual Dr. Vail Hour, a charity breakfast featuring performances by members. This year’s event will take place at 8 a.m. on Oct. 21 at the Metropolitan Ballroom in Golden Valley.

 “It really is a fun fundraiser,” Couillard said. “It’s really unique. Not typical.”

Vail Place club members in last year's production of the Dr. Vail Hour
Tom Dunn Photography
Vail Place club members in last year’s production of the Dr. Vail Hour, an annual breakfast fundraiser for the organization.

The hourlong breakfast performance used to feature clubhouse members telling personal stories about living with serious and persistent mental illness, but a few years ago, the production was changed to an original play, written by a Vail Place staffer in consultation with club members. Last year, the Dr. Vail Hour shifted yet again, to take the form of a classic radio show.

“Everybody has a script, it’s really fun,” Couillard said. “I think there are 18 people — staff and members — involved in a variety of different segments. It’s an inspiring way to understand the challenges that people with mental illness are facing. We’ve gotten great response from donors.”

The event is free, but RSVPs are required. For more information, go here.

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