New club welcomes Medford's mentally ill

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MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — Liza Reibel used to suffer from such severe clinical depression she not only rarely left her house, she rarely left her bedroom.

Today, she is on the board of directors and is a member of the newly opened Compass House, a Medford club that welcomes people living with mental illness.

While there, members can socialize, pursue their educations, work on administrative tasks and club chores, prepare menus, go grocery shopping, learn to cook and help each other. Compass House is staffed with professionals who facilitate the tasks, but the activities are member-driven.

"Having a place to socialize means a whole lot," said Reibel, who has recovered from her debilitating depression but still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's a place to belong. They can come and see familiar faces. People accept them. They don't feel like an outsider. Relationships are formed as they do productive work."

She said new members are asked, "What are your goals?"

"That one question empowers them to think, 'What's possible for me?'" Reibel said.

Unlike drop-in centers for mentally ill people, Compass House is a members-only organization. Members must have been referred by a mental or physical health care provider, who verifies the person is not a safety risk.

But Compass House is actively seeking new members, including veterans struggling with mental illness. Opened on Aug. 1, it already has about 50 members.

The club hopes to eventually have 300 to 400 members, said Chad McComas, who has long worked on behalf of the mentally ill and is chairman of the Compass House board.

He said the club gives members a sense of purpose and a place to go during the week.

"They step out of their isolation and find friends and peers. They learn to work together and learn social skills," McComas said. "They come here to do something. They don't just sit on the couch."

Member Jill Redelf, who suffers from severe anxiety and stress, said she enjoys working at the reception desk and cooking. She recently learned how to make curry.

Redelf said she thinks Compass House helps people.

"They get community so they wouldn't be so nervous and stay home all the time," she said. "I love it."

In January 2015, the fledgling Compass House plans to expand its offerings by launching a transitional employment program, said Executive Director Matthew Vorderstrasse.

The club will work with local employers to identify jobs that could be filled by members. Compass House will train members to do the work. Staff members will also learn the skills so they can fill in if necessary, Vorderstrasse said.

The goal is for a member to stay in the job for six to nine months, then move on to sustained, long-term employment, he said.

On the educational front, members will be able to learn to read, pursue their GEDs and enroll in college, write scholarship essays and learn about student loans, Vorderstrasse said.

An Eagle Point mother who was visiting Compass House earlier this week said a job program for mentally ill people is desperately needed.

Her 27-year-old son was misdiagnosed with autism and severe emotional disturbance as a teen and placed in special education classes before finally being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"It was a challenging and difficult time for me. When I heard his diagnosis, it floored me," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used.

She said it's hard for mentally ill people to secure jobs because they are competing with a pool of applicants who don't suffer from mental illness. Her son's condition has improved and he is attending Rogue Community College, but he has teetered on the brink of homelessness in the past.

"He's applied for jobs, gotten interviews and then been frustrated that he can't get a job," said the mother, who has secured Oregon Health Plan, disability and food stamp benefits for her son to keep him afloat.

In addition to helping members with educational and employment opportunities, Compass House could save money by reducing costly psychiatric hospitalizations and imprisonment of mentally ill people, according to Clubhouse International.

Compass House-style clubs exist around the world and there are more than 200 in the United States, Vorderstrasse said.

Medford's Compass House is the second in Oregon. The other is in Portland, he said.

Vorderstrasse said the club is a place where members help each other with the myriad challenges they face. Every day they have meetings where members talk about what they need to improve their lives.

"We ask if anyone has community resource needs. Often, the person next to them has the answer," Vorderstrasse said.


Information from: Mail Tribune,

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