Uptown’s clubhouse of hope

Staff and members gather at Vail Pace, a clubhouse for people with mental illness. File photo

From the street at 36th & Hennepin, Vail Place looks like a typical century-old Minneapolis house. Inside, the house is bustling with activity.

About 50 people come through the doors each day, visiting for lunch, coffee chats, drum circles, morning meditation or Texas Hold’em. Some have been coming for more than 20 years.

The house is open to people diagnosed with a serious or persistent mental illness.

“Most people who use it are here at least once a week,” said member Frank Del Ghingaro.

Members can sign up for excursions like a Lake Minnetonka boat ride, a trip to a golf driving range or a hike on Cedar Lake Trail. Everyone chips in to complete household tasks including kitchen work, vacuuming and business tasks.

“Most of our members find the work is meaningful,” Del Ghingaro said.

A computer lab is available for job searches, and Vail Place keeps housing and employment specialists on staff. A member service center acts like a bank for members who don’t have easy access to checking accounts. People who would normally pay their rent in cash can bring it into the center to generate a check, in order to keep a record of the payment.

Once a month, Vail Place celebrates birthdays with a party and karaoke.

The Minneapolis house was originally built for the caretaker of the Lakewood Cemetery across the street. The backyard holds space for a garden and a gazebo.

Vail Place 3

“It’s an old house, but we’d miss it if we ever had to leave,” Del Ghingaro said.

There are more than 300 clubhouses for mental health around the world, the first of which was the Fountain House in New York. It was founded in the late 1940s by six patients of a psychiatric institution who gathered regularly in the hospital club room. Upon release from the hospital, they decided to continue meeting to support each other’s recovery, initially calling their group “We Are Not Alone.”

Vail Place (named for Minnesotan Dr. David Vail) launched in Hopkins in 1981 and Uptown in 1988.

Isolation is one of the destructive symptoms of mental illness, said Minneapolis Clubhouse Program Manager Chad Bolstrom. He said a long-term mental health condition can feel devastating.

“You start to believe those stigmatized thoughts,” he said.

Vail Place members take shifts calling people they haven’t heard from in a while.

“You have to see beyond your own shadow,” Del Ghingaro said.

Bolstrom said he wants to challenge stigmas of mental health disorders. In reality, it’s just another illness, he said.

“We’re helping members to start to regain faith in themselves,” he said.

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A grid on the wall shows job opportunities from employers like Kowalski’s that partner with Vail Place.

“It’s meant for people to get back into the workforce,” Del Ghingaro said. “…The more we get, I think we’d fill every one of them.”

Sea Salt Eatery has employed Vail Place members for nearly seven years, and the partnership has grown with Sea Salt’s business.

“It’s opened doors for folks,” Bolstrom said. “Some never thought they would work again.”

“It’s a good stepping stone,” Del Ghingaro said.

Vail Place at 1412 W. 36th St. will celebrate a 30-year anniversary in 2018, and staff are raising money to remodel the house.

“We want to make sure the clubhouse isn’t a best-kept secret,” Bolstrom said. “It’s pretty important to be out there and let people know that this model works.”