Sharon Lowe is executive director of Austin Clubhouse, a 10-year-old organization in Austin, Texas, providing community-based, nonclinical, peer-supported mental health recovery. Here, MissionBox CEO and co-founder Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks with Sharon about how the organization is fulfilling its mission to empower adults who are experiencing mental health issues.
Could you describe the organization’s mission and how its members work together?
The mission of Austin Clubhouse is to empower and accept adults experiencing mental health issues so they can play a significant role in the lives of co-workers, family members, neighbors and friends. At the same time, they can pursue their personal goals. We aim to create a community of hope. There are no hierarchies and decisions are made by consensus.
Members work side-by-side with staff to operate the clubhouse as a business and as a nonprofit—every aspect from fundraising to the work-ordered day, which is the cornerstone of our work. Members work in groups to create support for themselves and each other, run the clubhouse and contribute to healing. It is mostly about creating meaningful relationships and meaningful work. It is a lifelong membership with no time limitations and no expectations that you will graduate and leave.
We have just reopened two days a week, for full eight-hour days, and started lunch again. Lunch is just a delight. Members and staff work together to plan meals, shop, cook the meals and serve. We have about 35 people who come in for lunch on a regular basis.
How did Austin Clubhouse get started?
Austin Clubhouse was founded by a group of concerned Austinites who were connected with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Texas, NAMI Austin, Integral Care and other groups related to mental health. They saw a real need for nonclinical and peer-based support.
Austin Clubhouse is accredited by Clubhouse International, an organization founded 70 years ago. It was radical for its time and I think it remains radical. The Clubhouse model is founded on a theory of equity and inclusion in the mental health process. It started when a group of former patients from a mental health hospital started meeting and realized that they support one another, and that healing comes through creating profound and meaningful relationships. There is no us and them, just us. True inclusion and true community.
What are advantages of the Clubhouse model?
That everyone is included and that diversity and strength are respected and encouraged. We all have a special gift to give to the world, and I think the Clubhouse model honors that people are not defined by their illness. They are there to define their lives for themselves and to discover and use their talents.
Could you share a success story?
I think every member of the Clubhouse is a success story because they each have taken the first steps toward building a better life. They are already working full time. They are published writers, artists, filmmakers, homemakers, medical professionals. I have been with the organization about eight months now and initially I could not tell who was a member and who was staff. They are all just wonderful people who are supportive.
How large is the organization?
We have about 1,200 members, currently. People come and go as they need to. They come in and out of the workforce. Employment can be an important step on the path to recovery. Our programming offers opportunities for supported, transitional and independent employment; support with education; with housing; other public benefits; and the whole health and wellness. There is a great amount of interaction.
What are you trying to achieve and what are the challenges ahead?
We are always trying to find a way to try to make change more systemic and help people understand that some charity is needed. It is philanthropy, really caring about one another, and investing in the community. After all, mental illness is the most prevalent illness in the world. We are eager to find ways to reach out to more people and I think that is the challenge ahead: to connect with more people and become sustainable.