Center provides ‘a place where others don’t judge you’

From The Oregonian, March 29, 2001

And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. I SAMUEL 16:23

Jennie Easly was a young mother, just 23, when she started having delusions.

She was living outside Hillsboro with her husband and 1 1/2-year-old daughter when she imagined that an angel or spirit was calling her to become his lover and that she had to find him.

She ended up in a mental hospital and lost her marriage and custody of her daughter. During the years, she heard voices and flew into rages. Sometimes she needed tranquilizers to calm down. Even sitting in a room with the door closed frightened her. Relatives, thinking she was just acting crazy, turned their backs.

“I got taken away from my daughter,” Easly said. “That broke my heart, and I gave up on life.”

Things are finally looking up for Easly, now a 42-year-old Gresham resident. And the main reason is David’s Harp, a center in Parkrose for people with mental illness.

The program, which marked its 23rd year last month, helps people tap community resources and learn skills for day-to-day living. Most important, it provides a friendly place for people to gather.

Mental health professionals said that for people like Easly, who often are shunned by society and their families, having somewhere to belong can make all the difference.

“For a lot of them, that is their family — period,” said Mary Kautzer, program coordinator at David’s Harp. “I think the best thing is that sense of community, that sense of belonging: ‘I belong someplace. I matter.’ ”

David’s Harp, which takes its name from the Old Testament book of Samuel, was among the first of a handful of social programs in the Portland area for people with mental illness. The center sits in a quiet residential neighborhood, in a low-slung gray building owned by next-door Parkrose United Methodist Church.

Inside, windows pour light into a long, vaulted room outfitted with a row of round tables, an open kitchen, and a couple of couches and chairs gathered around a television set. Shelves hold games and craft supplies. Two dogs, a golden retriever named Sophie and a shepherd-sheltie mix named Emmy Lou, wander freely.

The center feels like a clubhouse, and that’s intentional. People who come here are called members, not clients, although they must be referred to the program through Mt. Hood Community Mental Health Center in Gresham.

A few live in private housing, but most are in adult foster care, a residential care facility or an apartment subsidized by Mt. Hood Community Mental Health. The bulk of those referred to the program are between ages 30 and 55. Few have jobs.

At the center, members can take part in organized activities and outings or just hang out and have a snack and a smoke. One recent day, some people went on a shopping trip to Goodwill while others played bingo, took part in a discussion group on relationships or watched a Jimmy Stewart movie. Volunteers in the kitchen set out paper plates with sandwiches and chips.

Another day, members gathered to talk about the day’s activities and an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day party. They also applauded one another’s small victories. Rebecca announced that she had begun walking to 7-Eleven by herself. Leah said she had been asked on a date.

Peggy, a neatly groomed 48-year-old, said cheap food at David’s Harp — sandwiches cost 50 cents, and a cup of coffee is just a nickel — enables people with little spending money to enjoy a meal away from home. But mostly, she and other members said, they come for the camaraderie.

“We consider ourselves like a family here,” said Joanne, a cheerful 44-year-old.

Peggy said there’s no competition among members, unlike with her relatives. “They expect too much from me, and I feel like I don’t measure up to them,” she said.

Social acceptance important

That acceptance is what centers like David’s Harp are all about, said Jason Renaud, director of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

“Having access to a place where other people don’t judge you by your illness, it’s incredibly important,” he said. “Normal people, we ask them in a whole series of subtle ways not to be crazy: ‘Act normal. Why don’t you get a job? Don’t talk to yourself.'”

A center also might be the only social outlet for people with mental illness. It’s common for people to lose connections to co-workers, friends and relatives as they become ill, Renaud said. That isolation makes the illness worse.

“Having a friend to call when you’re feeling crazy is essential,” he said.

Kautzer, the program coordinator, tells of a man named Joe who didn’t speak when he started coming to David’s Harp. But the center’s two dogs at the time drew him out of his shell. He would sit next to one, Rainbow, and sing, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Before long, he was connecting with people, too.

“It was really like seeing the program do what it was supposed to do,” she said.

Rachel Post, assistant director for Portland State University’s Center for the Study of Mental Health Policy and Services, agrees that social programs serve a vital function. Post directed a program in North Portland from 1997 to 1999.

“I saw people maybe regaining a sense of self and identity, becoming more motivated and engaged socially,” Post said. “It was a place where they could feel needed, wanted and expected.”

However, Post said social programs aren’t the whole answer. People with mental illness also should get the chance to go to school, hold a job or pursue other ambitions. She is project coordinator of a program called Individual Placement and Support Plus, with sites in Southeast Portland and Washington County, that aims to do just that.

“There also need to be opportunities for people using the (social) programs to be able to choose other options that would assist them in becoming more integrated into the community,” she said.

With the right support, she said, even people who seem beyond hope can sometimes hold a job.

Regaining hope

Jennie Easly has regained hope for herself only in recent months. A tall woman with long, straight hair, she is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which causes both delusional thinking and behavior problems.

She lives at Hoodview Residential Care Home, a Gresham facility with 24-hour staffing. She tends to speak loudly, and she gets edgy if she has to sit for long. She says she still talks out loud to God in public.

But Easly has no trouble holding a conversation. She shows a sense of humor and teases her case manager, Lori Stone, one of the staff members at David’s Harp, that she’s telling a reporter how awful Stone is.

She’s also eager to talk about how much better she’s doing with new medication, a renewed faith in God and participation at David’s Harp.

“I’m making friends here,” she said. “People here are just like me. I feel accepted and cared about by the staff.”

Easly said she no longer has breakdowns and doesn’t need tranquilizers. Her new medicine helps keep her emotions on an even keel.

“If I get angry now, people can say, ‘Jennie, please lower your voice,’ and I say, ‘That’s OK,’ ” she said.

She doesn’t hear voices or have such intense paranoia, like the time she quit coming to David’s Harp several years ago because she feared she would be buried in concrete during an expansion project.

She has contact with her father. She also talks on the phone with her daughter, Raina, now a 21-year-old college student in Hawaii. “She’s very open-hearted toward me now,” Easly said.

At David’s Harp, she likes to serve soda. By taking on jobs, members get a sense of responsibility and points redeemable for food, donated clothes and household items. Easly shows off a shirt she got and said she got a lamp and mug for home.

The program’s outings, led by the center’s driver and program assistant, Cliff Shrader, also give Easly one of her few chances to go shopping or go out to eat. She enjoys the freedom of going to a mall but is too afraid to take a bus or MAX by herself. She also needs to know a staff member is there to help if she becomes frightened.

With her new friends, activities and control over her behavior, she said: “I finally feel good about myself for the first time in my life.”