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Lee Cataluna: Kaneohe clubhouse brings people with mental illnesses together for holiday

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 11/23/2018

Nov. 23--This is not a sad story about people with no family who have nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. This is a happy story about people who have no family and nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving -- or any holiday -- banding together and having a wonderful time.

The Koolau Clubhouse on Alaloa Street in Kaneohe is a safe place to be during the day for people diagnosed with serious mental illness. There's job training, skill building and a support system of friends. Because many of the members live in care homes or group homes, holidays can feel empty. Some of the members are homeless. On regular days, and especially on holidays, the clubhouse is there for them.

"All my family members are back in the mainland," said member Marcy Taylor. "I wouldn't have any place to go if not for the clubhouse. It's all I have."

Some, though, have family and choices. They chose to come here for Thanksgiving.

Thursday started with Thanksgiving breakfast, with pumpkin spice pancakes and a Portuguese sausage-and-potato breakfast casserole, a recipe from clubhouse director Michelle Chow's father. As members, staff and volunteers worked side by side in the kitchen, they taste-tested, joked around and laughed like a family.

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"We are a family," Chow said. "We cook together, work together, clean up together."

Chow has been working at the clubhouse for 28 years, since before the program took on the Clubhouse model.

"I've seen members go from the pride of getting their first paycheck to working 11 years at the same job. I've been to members' weddings. When I was in the hospital last year, members came to visit me," she said, her eyes misting over. "They know my kids. I know all their nightmares from before, and I see how they're doing now."

About 30 members came to celebrate Thanksgiving in the big room. They helped to prepare the food or talked story at the tables. A few sat quietly all by themselves, and that was perfectly fine. Chow said she often reminds herself, "We never know what it took for them to even come here to the clubhouse."

The room is a safe space. Other families may be having silent, seething dinners or screaming matches across the table, but the clubhouse is peaceful and accepting. No one need turn a blind eye or deaf ear to get through the meal. This is true acceptance.

The celebration included party games, like a crowd-pleaser in which each player had a balloon tied with string around his or her leg, the object being to step on and pop someone else's balloon while keeping your own safe. The winner got a bag of candy. So did all the losers. No one walked away mad.

Wayne Kodama was happily talking about his job at Big City Diner washing dishes to anyone who would listen. The clubhouse works with businesses in the community to secure jobs, place the right member in the position and train that person for the job. Kodama described a life of hardships and the lifeline his job and the clubhouse have provided him.

Longtime member Tony Samuels has been working as a crossing guard at Sunset Elementary for 11 years. He's busy, but he still checks in with the clubhouse when he can.

"It's really great to have someplace to go," he said.

Samuels describes a deep kind of camaraderie among the members, the kind of friendship where you can be completely honest with one another.

"For example, someone can say, 'Does this sound crazy to you?' and then they tell you a delusion they've been having. And then you go, 'Yeah, that's probably not real.' We can talk to each other that way."

Chow is very mindful of the power dynamic of the organization. It is not staff telling members what to do. It is everyone working together, everyone become their best selves.

"I keep pictures in my office of all the clubhouse members who have passed away over the years," Chow said.

The average life span of a person with mental illness is 25 years less than the rest of the population. Chow has seen many members die. "Each one of them taught me something," she said.

As in many households, there wasn't much of a break between the last pancake and the beginning of turkey, but there was enough time for reflection. Just before the Thanksgiving meal was served, everyone took a turn saying what they are grateful for.

"My job," said Kodama.

"The clubhouse," said Samuels.

The gratitude continued around the room.

"My wife."

"My daughter."

"A safe place to be and to not be homeless and living on the street."

The last person to go was busy stirring pots in the kitchen.

"Your turn! Say what you're thankful for!" the group members demanded.

From the very back of the kitchen came the answer:

"I'm thankful for everything!"

And they all agreed that was a very good answer.

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Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.

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(c)2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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