Nonprofit employs those with mental health challenges

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BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — This is not your typical first job.

In the basement of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, during the daytime when the doors are locked, you will find rows of sewing machines staffed with mostly young adults. They're meticulously cutting fabrics, sewing buttons and hand-assembling high-quality meditation pillows.

Sometimes, they practice small talk, joke-telling or socially appropriate eye contact.

In addition to learning sewing skills, they talk about stress management, conflict resolution and managing the "monkey mind." You know, the part of your brain that can sometimes go off on a tangent of self-doubt, worry or distraction.

These are skills the typical employer isn't trained to manage, and issues the typical worker might not need extra assistance with.

But these workers have all struggled with mental health challenges. And they all want to head toward independence and rebuilding their lives.

This is the headquarters of the nonprofit Infinitely Simple, which employs people with mental health challenges to teach them job skills in a transitional workplace, to prepare them for traditional employment and, ultimately, independence.

Some have struggled with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other issues, says Sue Williams, executive director of Infinitely Simple and the Windhorse Guild, which runs the program.

"Some medications are quite good, exercise, meditation itself, nutrition and a holistic approach are all great, but nothing seems to work quite as powerfully as having a job," Williams says.

Successful employment fills in the final crucial gap of rebuilding, she says; it helps people realize they are not defined by their diagnosis or symptoms. They still can contribute to society. This builds their confidence, she says, which snowballs into other positive steps.

After four to six months of job skills training and employment at Infinitely Simple, Williams says, some people have gone on to get other full-time jobs or to enroll in higher education.

Because mental illness often strikes in a person's late teens to early 20s, many of the apprentices at Infinitely Simple are young adults who missed critical developmental stages or who haven't held a job before, Williams says.

"For many, this is their first job and the value of a paycheck is pretty remarkable," Williams says. "We start out teaching showing up on time, with good presence, working an entire shift — things we all take for granted because we learned them at 14 or 15 years old."

The social barrier is big, says JoAnn Burton, coordinator of community programming at Windhorse Community Services.

"Some feel timid around other people, judged, not accepted," Burton says.

She has been helping people with mental health challenges in the workforce for more than 30 years, and she developed a four-month curriculum for the apprentices. They attend class twice a week to learn work skills and how to control their thoughts, then they apply those lessons in their workplace.

"You have to navigate through the stress of dealing with co-workers, your supervisor, the fast pace, changes, mergers, new supervisors," she says.

The social enterprise itself was launched only a year ago, but it now has a waiting list, and the product line continues to expand. It started out producing meditation cushions and now also sells throw pillows, shams, cushion covers, yoga tote bags, skirts, handbags, yoga bolsters, eye pillows and hand-painted mirrors.

This spring, a contract making Naropa University's cushions increased demand and allowed Infinitely Simple to hire more apprentices, increasing its total to eight who each work for minimum wage. Most of the money to run the social enterprise comes from donations.

The products have multiple points of quality control to ensure they are well-crafted, Williams says.

"We will take on any product we can make in our tiny, little shop in the basement of the homeless shelter. Anything that gives our apprentices valuable work skills and confidence," she says.


Information from: Daily Camera,

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