Blue Water Clubhouse works to change the employment reality for people struggling with mental healthThe Nonprofit Journal Project

We all face challenges that can be overcome with the proper resources and direction. Sometimes, it takes a team of individuals to accomplish what one alone cannot. At Blue Water Clubhouse in Port Huron, we provide adults in the community with resources to achieve and maintain gainful employment. What separates us from other organizations doing similar work, is that our colleagues are coping with mental illness, which can create barriers for employment. In the U.S., 90% of people with serious mental illness are under-employed or unemployed.

Blue Water Clubhouse, started in 1999, is just one of many programs under our nonprofit parent company, Touchstone Services. We also operate Clubhouses in Alpena County and Bay City. I came on board here, as director, in 2018. Previously, I worked eight years at St. Clair County Community Mental Health serving those coping with intellectual disabilities. I’ve always had an interest in the field of mental health. My grandfather was involved in the field of mental health in this community as well. It’s a passion my whole family shares. I fell in love with the Clubhouse model, and program, and have worked to reach our community through it any way I can. 

The technical term for our Clubhouse is a Psychosocial Rehabilitation (PSR) program. That means it’s a program specifically for adults with mental illness that fills gaps left by other service methods. It’s an evidence-based model, with over 40 internationally accredited Clubhouses, in over 30 counties in Michigan. Our state has the biggest concentration of Clubhouses in the nation, and we’re constantly expanding to meet the needs of those we serve. Our goal is to create an intentional community that encourages each other, and where everyone involved is referred to as our colleagues, whether you are staff or someone receiving services. 

We hold daily meetings with our colleagues to organize our work. This may include going out to acquire employment, focusing on skill-building or planning an event for our organization. Our colleagues train for potential employment through our business and kitchen units. They focus on meaningful activities where they can really recognize each other's strengths, while working toward shared goals. Working together in this manner helps us form deep and meaningful relationships, and increase our colleagues job readiness and placement. We work with businesses, such as St. Clair County Community Mental Health. Prior to the pandemic, we also worked with Tio Gordos Cocina and Taco Bell.  

We were blindsided by COVID-19, not long after I took on the role as director. To combat the challenges that came with that situation, we had to change some of the ways we operated our program. Unable to meet together in person, we initially went into panic mode.  I'm sure we weren't the only organization to do so. But we found our way, by transitioning to virtual services. Our partnership with Community Mental Health was very beneficial for us, as they helped to make sure the people who rely on our program still had access to quality services. The Community Foundation of St. Clair County also provided us with key assistance. Through a grant, we received funding from the foundation to help purchase Netbooks and Chromebooks, ensuring that our colleagues were still able to participate in meetings.

Surprisingly, going virtual turned out to be a huge success. We had great participation and interaction, and some of our colleagues increased their involvement in our programs. We still utilize and offer those online services to our members. The isolation the pandemic brought, wasn't good for some of our colleagues, so that online component was huge for us. It allowed people to reach out, and to have someone there for them in their times of need. In addition to virtual options, we’ve also kept social distancing in place. It’s not six feet, but we’re allowing for more space than before. We actually didn't realize how cramped things were until then, and now our environment feels more open and comfortable.

Something people may not know about our organization is how active we are in the community. Historically, we’ve participated in many community activities and events over the years, like the Halloween Stroll put on by the Parks and Recreation Department. We pass out candy to local participants, who often have no idea who we are, or what we do as an organization. We’re also affiliated with the novelty gift shop, A Little Something, in downtown Port Huron. We use that extension of our program to help our colleagues refine their work skills. The profits made from the store funnel back into funding our other programs at Touchstone Services.

We are looking forward to life post-pandemic, yet I worry that we will continue to go back to high levels of COVID-19. It was really hard for those in our community to be secluded, and cut off from our in-person meetings and activities. We've made lots of small steps forward, which has given us hope, and something to look forward to. It would be tough for us to go through that scenario again. 

Our main goal as an organization is to get our members employed. This is a right everyone should be afforded, yet 90% of people with serious mental illness are under-employed or unemployed. Our organization will continue to offer the services needed to change that reality.

Through our Transitional Employment Development service, which is a daily priority of ours, we continue to help members find employment by working together. It’s a shared responsibility that involves our staff, our board members, the family, that our Clubhouse members become, and of course, the individual looking for placement. Due to the combined efforts of everyone involved, our unique approach to combat unemployment is one of the most effective and successful.   

Sean Kivel is the director of Blue Water Clubhouse in Port Huron. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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