It’s more than a club, it’s a community: Nonprofit offering services to those with mental illness seeks new facility


Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
From left, Jennifer McAbee, Erica Horn, John Sy, Lee Piombo and Peter Huysentruyt spend time at California Clubhouse in San Mateo.

Behind the doors of California Clubhouse in San Mateo is a group of adults learning, working and socializing with one thing in common — they’re all living with a mental health diagnosis.

It’s been about a year since the local chapter of this worldwide nonprofit has been fully operational and at the point where it’s about to outgrow its Palm Avenue facility.  Now, Clubhouse is seeking an alternate site where it can continue to create a network of folks who have forged a supportive environment allowing them to focus on vocational skills.

“The Clubhouse is really a community in itself and it provides an opportunity for people whose lives have been disrupted by their illness to come to a place, meet people who understand what they’re going through and to be encouraged, reconnect with their goals, their aspirations for life, really help them regain that sense of purpose in their life and their future,” said California Clubhouse Executive Director Erica Horn.

But as of June 15, the newly formed chapter must move to a new building as their short-term lease is slated to expire. Plus, its success over the last year has made officials keenly aware that they need to expand as they have nearly 75 members and anticipate more in the coming years, Horn said.

The San Mateo nonprofit was founded by its board President Juliana Fuerbringer, who was inspired to create a local Clubhouse after her adult son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

After years of studying the organization with nearly 340 chapters across the globe, building community support, securing donations and receiving Measure A funds from the county Board of Supervisors; Fuerbringer said she’s thrilled to provide those with mental illness a local place to recover. Although it’s not a clinical program, they hope to continue to partner with other agencies to provide a comprehensive recovery system.

“Everybody needs community and we all struggle around here with community because we’re so busy working,” Fuerbringer said. “Clubhouse is a community program really at its best and that is the most nurturing and most healing thing over the long term. Medication can be one part of it, but the community piece is so powerful.”

Open to different options for a new facility, Fuerbringer said they’ve been working with a Realtor to find a suitable rental, ideally something around 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, that’s close to transit. As a nonprofit, they’re on a budget and hopeful the public at large will come forward with options or ideas, so they can continue offering support to those looking to restore their lives, Fuerbringer said.

The Clubhouse offers those who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness a flexible environment for them to come, help manage the facility, learn vocational skills ranging from using computer programs to basic accounting, and participate in a transitional work program. It’s set up for those who may not be ready to either go back to working full time or participate in a more advanced vocational program. One unique offering is employers who offer temp jobs to Clubhouse members will have guaranteed work — meaning if the member can’t work one day, Clubhouse staff will go to the job site in their place, Fuerbringer and Horn said.

“People with mental illness are one of the lowest represented populations in employment and that’s often because once they’ve had the diagnosis or a severe episode of symptoms, there’s a little bit of fear on their end, but also on the end of others around them,” Horn said. “That’s why Clubhouse employment is so great.”

Fuerbringer agreed providing those with mental illness an opportunity to gain skills, avoid extended gaps in their resumes and gain work or volunteer experience is key to helping them prosper in the Bay Area’s hot job market.

Furthermore, just having a place for people to go, stimulate their minds and avoid isolation can be key to recovery, Horn said.

“The number one side effect of mental illness isn’t just medication or symptoms of the illness, the side effect really is the lack of self-esteem and we work really hard at Clubhouse to help rebuild and discover that again,” Horn said. “Research shows that minds that are active and productive can see a reduction in symptoms. So when a person is working on something that has a purpose, is meaningful and has a completion they can celebrate and feel accomplishment, it can help divert attention and focus from the symptoms and the illness.”

For Clubhouse member Jennifer McAbee, who was recently asked to join the local nonprofit’s Board of Directors, Clubhouse has changed her life.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1990s, the 59-year-old McAbee said she was attending counseling sessions but her family grew concerned that she was spending too much time alone.

McAbee said she now has aspirations that didn’t before seem possible.

“I love it here. I’ve learned a lot of stuff on the computer, I’ve helped make newsletters, brochures, I’m doing a little bit with accounting,” McAbee said. “I have friends here and I’m learning job skills. I haven’t been working for quite a while and now I want to get a part-time job.”

Fuerbringer and Horn said they’re hopeful that continuing to work closely with other local nonprofits will expand training programs for those living with mental illness. Without a strict timeline, members are allowed to stay as long as they need and can always return if they find they need more support down the line, Fuerbringer said.

Having found substantial community and county support that led to the creation of California’s third Clubhouse — other chapters exist in Contra Costa and San Diego counties — Fuerbringer said she’s hopeful they’ll find a new locale that will continue to keep this group in San Mateo County.

“It provides a community, they make friends, socialize, they feel part of something, they belong,” Fuerbringer said. “It’s so profound and beautiful to me, because I’ve seen how it works.”

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