BY GLENN PUIT
TRAVERSE CITY — Sue Orchard received a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis nearly 30 years ago, but she doesn't let that stop her from pursuing a normal, productive life.
Almost every day, Orchard, 53, heads to work at The Traverse House Clubhouse at 105 Hall Street in downtown Traverse City. She labors in the kitchen to make meals for others who, like her, choose to confront and conquer mental illness.
"I need the support," Orchard said. "I feel like I need to be here. I have a lot of friends here."
Orchard was diagnosed in 1981 and has attended the Clubhouse for a decade to work, learn and be with others.
Holly Barton, a clerical lead staffer at the Clubhouse, said the facility is a place for area residents with diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression and other conditions.
Members are referred from Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, and membership is voluntary. The membership helps about 70 residents avoid isolation while assisting in their individual game plans for recovery.
Barton said the goal is to help members obtain quality housing, education and jobs that pay the prevailing wage.
"It's a recovery-based program, and that's a big deal," Barton said. "The goal is for our members to get back into the community, working or back to school."
Orchard is one of several success stories found at the Clubhouse. She was in foster care for 14 years and now lives with her boyfriend. She recently completed a months-long job assignment at a downtown Traverse City restaurant, and she's readying for her next job placement in the community so she can earn her own pay.
If she didn't have the Clubhouse, she said, she'd be "living in foster care, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and feeling sorry for myself."
"It gives me the ability to help me improve and recover from mental illness," Orchard said. "We are all recovering."
Members work side by side, often mentoring one another, as they complete tasks to keep the Clubhouse running. Their jobs range from word processing to food service, housekeeping and accounting.
Counselor Lauren Barnard said the Clubhouse also dispels common falsehoods about mental illness, many held by the diagnosed themselves. Those myths include misconceptions that the mentally ill should be institutionalized or that they are violent and unemployable.
"Once they believe that, they tend to isolate themselves," Barnard said. "Our goal is to get people back to work, socializing, and help them in their journey."
Interviews with Clubhouse regulars indicate the gathering place's importance in their lives. Pete Wenzel, 69, lives in an adult foster care and cherishes his time at the Clubhouse.
"It's instrumental in my recovery," Wenzel said. "This is my opportunity to get out, meet people and do the things the Clubhouse offers. I'm with people who face similar issues."
Douglas Sieffert, 47, of Traverse City, agrees. He recently met at the Clubhouse with Lorie Moon, 42, and Leerae Fineout, 55, of Traverse City, to discuss membership, and Sieffert said he enjoys the opportunity to work with and help others.
"It feels good," Sieffert said. "It feels great."