Vail Place: a clubhouse for the mentally ill

CARAG house is "a place to go every day" offering work, friendship — and for some, contentment

Tom Omodt of Fulton, 38, said his schizophrenia started around 9th grade. When the teasing at Southwest High got too bad, his parents got him homebound tutoring. After high school, he struggled to hold jobs as a certified nursing technician, his employers saying he was too slow.

"Things went from bad to worse," Omodt said. "Worse" included living in a group home and psychiatric hospitalization.

Today, Omodt holds a part-time job bagging groceries for Lunds, lives on his own and can talk about a life with a brain disease that has terrifying symptoms and, for many, leads to isolation.

He credits his parents, improved medications, his own maturing and Vail Place for his independence and success.

He started going to Vail Place, a clubhouse for people with chronic and persistent mental illness, in the mid-1980s, he said.

"It gave him somewhere to go each day," Omodt said. "Before I found Vail Place, I didn’t have any close friends. Now I have several. It got me working again. It improved my social skills."

Vail Place has two locations, one in Hopkins and one at 1412 W. 36th St. Like Omodt, roughly 60 percent of its members have schizophrenia, a disease that causes people to hear internal voices, believe others are reading their minds or are plotting to harm them.

Each weekday, roughly 40 to 50 people come to Vail Place’s CARAG neighborhood location, a former three-story single-family home located near Hennepin Avenue.

The clubhouse is based on a work-ordered day, where members are encouraged to do house chores between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Staff are both advocates and coworkers in running the clubhouse, sharing routine jobs.

Vail Place provides social opportunities, such as sponsoring sports teams, $1.50 hot lunches and dinners, and help with housing, social services and budgeting. In 2001, members had an average monthly income of $550.

Vail Place also supports members such as Omodt who are able to hold outside jobs.

In one sense, Omodt’s situation is out of the ordinary, Vail Place staff said. He has a supportive family — a safety net that many members do not have.

Tom Omodt’s parents, Don and Helen Ann Omodt, bought a second house near their own, and rent it to him. They are proud of Tom and said Vail Place has done exceptional things for him.

"I don’t know where he would be if Vail Place wasn’t there," said Don Omodt, former Hennepin County Sheriff. "He would probably be in a state hospital. It is a life line."

His son still has minor crises every week, Don Omodt said.

"He says, ‘I’m going to Vail Place.’ It turns him around."

Joining the club, doing a job

Vail Place has a sign in front, but the house and its members do not draw attention to themselves.

A receptionist at Uptown Vision, 3553 Hennepin Ave. S., said Vail Place is a good neighbor. Audra Lea, the neighborhood’s Crime Prevention Specialist, said it is very quiet and hasn’t caused problems.

Vail Place follows a clubhouse model replicated all over the world. It believes that work is vital for personal well being, said Paul Sinclair, executive director.

Unlike most drop-in centers, Vail Place has no television. Staff dresses casually and does not wear ID tags, an effort to blend in with members and make the setting less institutional.

Vail Place staff allowed the Southwest Journal to spend time at the clubhouse and observe activities. Some members seemed withdrawn; others actively sought out the opportunity to talk about how Vail Place had helped them.

The Vail Place doors open at 9 a.m., and soon staff and members meet to divvy up jobs. The Main Unit (first floor) task list includes answering phones, kitchen and snack bar duty, dusting, watering plants and garbage detail.

A recent Main Unit meeting begins with a "check in" with staff and members reflecting on their day. Several report doing well. One member talks to himself and seems a bit delusional, He said he got jumped the previous night and questions whether C.J. had done it.

C.J. Miura, Vail Place’s social and recreation coordinator, deflects the question and moves on.

Some members sign up for multiple tasks, and a few take none, in spite of gentle cajoling. When no one signs up for vacuuming, staff Betsey Faerber volunteers.

The meeting ends with a "Get to work — get busy" from one of the members.

Miura said some clubhouses would ask people to leave if they didn’t take a job, but Vail Place is not that strict.

"Instead of isolating them in an apartment, we think it is meaningful to be here, socializing," he said. "Each day is different. Sometimes people help more."

Members hold a separate meeting on the second floor, called the Pride Unit. Its tasks include clerical work, writing the clubhouse newsletter, sending birthday and get well cards to members, as well as cleaning the bathrooms and conference room.

The conference room is used for everything from Spanish classes to a focus group for people with dual diagnosis — chronic mental illness and chemical dependency.

Michael Segal, 58, is producing the daily clubhouse update, called a "Post-it," tracking attendance and working on a thank-you card for the Evangelical Covenant Church youth group.

When he started coming to Vail Place 14 months ago, he didn’t know how to turn on a computer, he said. Now he can do cards and calendars.

"It’s a day-by-day thing," he said. "You learn a little more every day."

Segal has paranoid schizophrenia, he said. He had stints in mental hospitals — Fairview, Anoka, Glenwood Hills and St. Peter.

He says mental illness can feel like driving over a cliff; "you can’t maneuver," he said. His work at Vail Place gives him self-respect, he said. He points out proudly he attended 20 days in March.

"The people who come — they are called members," Segal said. "They are not patients or clients. It is a very good relation with staff."

He likes choosing which jobs to do, and not getting stuck with laundry or kitchen duty like he did at Anoka, he said. And he got to learn to use the Internet, and enjoys playing on-line poker with fake money.

"You wouldn’t say I’m super-successful," Segal said. "I am happy, content."

Encouraging words prompt a poet

Each Wednesday, Vail Place members hold a Decision-Making Meeting to discuss clubhouse matters.

Roughly 20 members attended a recent meeting. The main topic was buying lockers. One member had researched the issue, reported that he and a staff member had found some that were within the $20 budget, but they were too small.

Members announce a meeting to organize a dinner/clubhouse fundraiser.

Clubhouse member Jeanne Fischer acts as secretary, taking the meeting minutes. It’s a job she enjoys since she is a writer, she said.

Fischer, 64, started coming to Vail Place around Christmas, she said. She lives in a community residential facility in Stevens Square and heard about it from a friend.

Fischer has had bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, for years, she said. She has had hospitalizations — but also long periods of stability. She worked as a home health aid for 18 years.

Five years ago, she had a stroke, Fischer said.

"It affected my motor skills and my writing. It created anxiety and depression," she said. "I thought, ‘That’s the end of me. That’s the end of my writing.’ "

She got physical and occupational therapy, Fischer said. Vail Place staff learned she liked to write and encouraged her to read some poetry at a Vail Place talent show.

"I recently gave a reading at Dunn Bros," Fischer said. "I wouldn’t have had the courage without Vail Place."

Asked for a sample of her work, Fischer pens one of her four-line poems, "Life," from memory.

"Nothing is either black or white,

Only shades of gray,

Hope to push away the black

And have a few white days."

No awkward stares

Brad Hall, 43, a gregarious man, has come to Vail Place for three years and likes to work the snack bar, he said.

Hall is a Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran who has flashbacks, he said. He has had two concussions that have affected his memory. He has to take medication for the flashbacks and mood swings.

He had a crisis a week ago, and one of the staff members gave him a ride to the hospital, he said as he poured coffee for a member and a guest.

"You know how you go to a place and people stare you down and make you feel uncomfortable?" he said. "Here, they welcome you with open arms."

Hall participates on Vail Place sports teams, such as softball and basketball, and enjoys motivating teammates, he said.

For Rick Heimark, 47, Vail Place is not about creating a social circle, "but getting back on your feet," he said.

He has come to Vail Place since the 1980s, and comes when he is between jobs, he said. He worked as a fastener-quality technician in a Northeast Minneapolis warehouse for 15 months, but the company went out of business in October.

"When I start back [to Vail Place], I come full-time every day," he said, sitting at the receptionist’s desk, answering phones in a professional "Vail-Place-How-can-I-help-you" manner. "It is more realistic to the work day."

Heimark grew up in Granite Falls, and had a serious car accident when he was 17, he said. He was in a six-day coma, and still suffers from a permanent traumatic brain injury and depression.

He said Vail Place celebrates people’s abilities rather than their disabilities.

What are his abilities?

"I am a strong worker, highly intelligent," he said without hesitation. "I get it done no matter what it takes. I am trustworthy and I am loyal."

Getting back to work

Vail Place’s Temporary Employment Program gives members real-world, short-term, resume-building jobs. In return, Vail Place guarantees employers perfect attendance and will send a staff member if needed.

On a recent day, Program Coordinator Carrie Framsted left Vail Place to work at a movie theater for an absent worker.

Temporary Employment jobs, include the Mega Star box office or clerical work at TCF Mortgage or the Faegre & Benson law firm.

Tom Omodt said many years ago, he got an Arby’s job — doing prep work, filling ketchup bottles, baking cookies and taking roasts out of the oven — through Vail Place. He later got the Lunds job on his own and has kept it for 13 years.

His name is one of the 41 listed on Vail Place’s supportive employment board. Members have jobs at places such as Cargill, Blake School, Menards and Sam Goody. They have permanent jobs but get help as needed.

A couple of years into the Lunds job, Omodt said he was hearing laughter and became convinced someone was laughing at him. "It is hard to explain," he said, describing the feeling as one of "overwhelming fear and confusion."

"I had someone from Vail Place go in and explain my situation. That was a big help," said Omodt, noting Lunds has been very supportive. "I wanted management to understand what was going on and make sure it was okay if I had to go and sit down. It helps me wait until it passes."