Equal Opportunities

A community program combats stereotypes by putting mentally ill people to work.

July, 2002

It’s lunchtime at the Kau Kau Café in Kaneohe. Assistant Manager Mark Nelson bustles around the dining room, chatting with employees, making sure that customers are satisfied. In the past, Nelson would not have been able to handle this job. Too overwhelming. Too much responsibility. “Back then, I was going through different jobs and not succeeding at those,” recalls Nelson, a Seattle transplant. “I wasn’t taking care of my personal hygiene and was isolating myself in my apartment. I had friends, but I chose not to see them.”

Nelson has schizophrenia. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with the mental illness eight years ago, but with the help of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa and the antidepressant Prozac, Nelson turned his life around. He graduated from the cooking program at Kapiolani Community College and participated in vocational programs sponsored by the University of Hawaii and Marriott Hotels and Resorts. “Things are really looking up,” he says. “I’ve gone through the whole gamut – the medication, the diagnosis. I’ve been at this treatment for a while now.” He receives a Social Security check for $500 every month, plus Medicaid coverage and government-subsidized housing.

That’s the kind of success story that Michelle Stanley likes to hear. Stanley is director of the Clubhouse at Kaneohe – a local organization that helps mentally ill people find jobs at private companies. “We work with severely mentally ill people, people with schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar depression,” Stanley says. There are six clubhouses in Hawaii. During the first quarter of this year, clubhouse members earned a total of $38,861 in wages.

In fact, it is the Kaneohe branch that supported Nelson. “It’s a win-win situation for clubhouse members,” Stanley says. “Their goal is to one day become financially independent.” The organization divides job descriptions into three categories:

Transitional employment, a six- to nine-month program that closely monitors new employees. If employees are absent from work, clubhouse personnel substitute until they return. There were 13 people in this program, as of this writing in May.

Supportive employment, a one-year program that immediately follows transitional employment. There were 21 people in the supportive program in May.

Independent employment. Employees have access to clubhouse-sponsored support groups and monthly dinners. There also were 21 people in the independent-employment program.

To complete these three stages, both employers and employees need to exercise patience and a willingness to cooperate, says Donna Ribellia-Abreu, franchise owner for two McDonald’s restaurants in Mililani. She knows that perfectly well. For the past five years, she has hired more than a dozen mentally ill people from the clubhouse. There were five working for her at the time of this writing. “What this has taught everybody is patience. Part of it is building and teaching them self confidence and believing in them,” she says. While most clubhouse members learn basic kitchen skills, some eventually go on to train other employees. “The only thing they don’t do is handle money,” she says.

Clubhouse executives hope to reach out to more people who share the same attitude as Ribellia-Abreu. “If I can expose our young 16-year-olds to these people, I think it helps in the future. It helps them to not stereotype and to look at them with open eyes,” she says.

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Cathy S. Cruz