A Clubhouse that changes lives: NorthStar members inspire Chair Kafoury

July 25, 2018

Chair Kafoury applauds a NorthStar member's moving success story.

Lunch at NorthStar Clubhouse is more than just a meal.

On a recent summer afternoon, nearly 30 members gather at round tables in the club’s Northeast Portland headquarters, a place where people living with mental illness can find support and friendship. The aroma of warm rice and beans fills the air. With help from the group’s nutrition specialist, a handful of members prepare organic vegetables, salad ingredients and homemade vinaigrettes.

The group pauses their lunch to welcome Chair Deborah Kafoury. One by one, members tell Kafoury why NorthStar matters.

“This place is somewhere where we can grow,” a man named Matt says. “We can grow as people and make courageous decisions in our treatment, empower ourselves and also empower those around us.”

“NorthStar is one of the only places where I fit in,” another man, Stanley, says.

“NorthStar means so many different things to me,” a third man, John, says. “It gives me a safe place to go, a safe place to socialize, and a safe place to reintegrate into society.”

“This was such an inspiring visit, with stories of hope and second chances,’’ Chair Kafoury said later. “The Clubhouse is changing lives.’’

Beyond providing community for people living with mental illness, NorthStar Clubhouse offers housing and employment services, peer support, and access to medical and psychiatric services. Members and staff work together to manage clubhouse operations, including a resale shop.

The clubhouse model of mental health services began in New York in 1948. It’s grown to 325 programs across 34 countries. Last year, 240 came through NorthStar’s doors, logging 16,000 volunteer hours in 2017 alone. Multnomah County helps fund NorthStar, a non-residential, peer-focused recovery program, to deliver mental health services to the community.

On any given day, members and staff work together to run the program, which is separated into two units: Employment & Operations and Nutrition & Wellness. The model gives members opportunities to be involved in work-oriented activities that are structured and meaningful. Through participation in NorthStar, members build new skills, rediscover skill they have lost, find purpose and gain self-confidence.

Wesley Hesketh at NorthStar

Wesley Hesketh is one of the clubhouse members. Four months ago, he wouldn’t leave his home. He said an abusive childhood caused him to develop severe agoraphobia, a type of anxiety that makes it hard for people to leave the security of their homes.

Agoraphobia left Hesketh lonely and frightened. He avoided being in public. He felt uncomfortable on transit, instead setting out to walk miles to his appointments. A mile into each walk, his heart would race, and he’d turn around for home.

A mental health expert referred Hesketh to NorthStar. He came to a couple of meetings, just to give it a try. Now he says he’s found a family.

“These people took me in,” Hesketh says. “I’ve forgotten about the agoraphobia. I trust people now. I feel great. I have a smile on my face.”

At NorthStar there are many success stories like Hesketh’s. Members chalk that up to the unique structure of the clubhouse model.

NorthStar is a voluntary program, and the group focuses on members’ strengths. Everyone contributes to the clubhouse, which helps members feel a sense of purpose and belonging. The model also includes nutrition and wellness coaches and employment experts for those seeking work.

NorthStar Clubhouse members applaud one another.

Zach Canciller is NorthStar’s employment specialist. Every day, he supports members who want to find a job by providing coaching and helping members strengthen their resumes.

Recently, Canciller helped a member land a job despite obstacles from legal issues. A conviction during the height of that member’s mental health struggles prevented him from finding meaningful work. Now, Canciller says, that member is productive and thriving.

“I always tell members, ‘It’s you who got the job. Your strengths that you brought got you the job,’” Canciller says. “I can’t put into words how amazing it is to be a part of that.”

NorthStar continues to grow. The clubhouse boasts more than 100 full-time members, and their resale shop is growing more popular. The store provides a training ground for members interested in working. It also serves as a much-needed funding source.

Meanwhile, Hesketh is building his livelihood. Since joining the program, he says he’s written three books. Long a musician, he says his songs have gone from sad to happy. He sums up what NorthStar means to him in verse:

“If you are so lonely,

and you need to grin,

go to the NorthStar clubhouse

they’ll always take you in.”