Rejoining the workforce

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For those recovering from mental health issues, programs at Goddard Riverside help individuals find and maintain jobs


  • Staff and members of the TOP clubhouse work together to organize and decorate their newly-renovated clubhouse. TOP helps people develop their life and work skills. Photo courtesy of Goddard Riverside

Finding a new job is nerve-wracking for anyone, but the process can be particularly tough for those who have dealt with mental illness. Staff at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side have created a supportive environment, reaching out to New Yorkers and their families, as well as running two programs aimed at helping those with mental health issues interested in rejoining the workforce: The Other Place (TOP) Clubhouse is a community of members who work together to operate and manage a clubhouse, where they do everything from cooking their meals to writing newsletters; TOP Opportunities is designed to help individuals find and maintain jobs.

TOP Clubhouse and TOP OP are closely related. Deborah Kaplan, Goddard Riverside’s director of employment and rehabilitation programs, oversees both projects and says she works with the same community of members. Kaplan joined TOP OP’s staff in 2006 and has watched the programs grow over the years. TOP Clubhouse grew from Goddard’s homeless outreach program, which originated as a way to help the mentally ill homeless. The program had a drop-in center, and Kaplan says it was only logical to create a program to keep members engaged throughout the day. That program, in turn, transitioned to the clubhouse model, becoming a place where people ages 18 and older from any socioeconomic background with any mental illness could join.

An alternative to a medical program, the clubhouse model uses a psychosocial approach to rehabilitation, where members work alongside professional staff to operate the clubhouse. TOP Clubhouse, which is open during the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, usually operates from the basement of a church on West 87th Street between West End and Broadway — however, due to a burst pipe, they’ve been temporarily displaced, now meeting in a much smaller space at 646 Columbus Ave.

“It’s a way for people to get back into the community and work on their recovery,” Kaplan says. “It’s a place for people to come where they feel welcome, where they can feel needed. You have to cook a meal, get the mail, make a newsletter — you have to all kinds of things to keep your clubhouse running.”

Members are usually referred to the program by their physicians and outpatient programs, but aren’t paid for their work at the clubhouse. Kaplan explains that the purpose of the program is to create a participatory and collaborative environment, rather than establish a hierarchy through paychecks. Members also pay for their meals, although at a very reduced price of $1.50 a meal.

The clubhouse creates a schedule for its members, who often struggle with time-management issues and keeping appointments, and provides a routine that builds skills that one day can be put towards rejoining the workforce. Once members are ready to make that transition, TOP OP helps them by offering assistance through supported employment.

Supported employment, Kaplan explains, is a practice where specialists work closely with members to assess their skills and interests, helping them with their job search. A large part of supported employment and one of the cornerstones of TOP OP is transitional employment: time-limited, paying jobs that help members overcome the barriers to the workforce. As Kaplan explains, transitional employment jobs belong to the program, not the individual. Placement managers (who are typically Goddard staff) train for the job; then, they work alongside a clubhouse member on the job for as long as that person needs before he or she can work independently. The biggest perk of transitional employment is that it gives guaranteed shift coverage to the employer: if, for some reason, the member can’t work on any given day, the placement managers will work that shift. Members keep jobs for about a year before rotating out.

“The idea is that you’re helping them get back into the workforce, but it’s not quite as threatening or frightening as getting a job on their own,” Kaplan says. “If somebody wants to go back to work, there are opportunities for them.”

Many of TOP OP and TOP Clubhouse members are graduates of the Goddard’s ACT Team program, the center’s outpatient program serving the Upper West Side, Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood. ACT Team clients are people who didn’t do well in traditional psychiatric centers; to qualify for ACT, a person must have a severe mental illness (such as schizophrenia or mood disorders like bipolar disorder) and must have been hospitalized three times within the last year.

ACT Team director Derrick Manigo says that in order to help a client improve, the ACT Team sometimes must work with the family as well. “A lot of time, the client may not have been the problem,” he says. Many times, the ACT Team has been able to repair rifts within families that resulted from the client’s mental illness. Manigo says that this is one of his favorite things about working with ACT. “It’s a magical thing when you see clients reach their highest potential,” he says. “Even just reaching a certain point where they can go on to another program and graduate from us.”

One of the most important aspects of Goddard’s mental health programs is the determination to help individuals become independent and self-sufficient.

“It’s about not creating dependency and not doing for people, but teaching them and encouraging them to do for themselves,” Kaplan says.

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