ELLSWORTH — It’s a Thursday morning at the Eagles’ Nest Clubhouse and Director Casey Harris is making lunch (sandwiches and salad, along with garlic-salted kale chips) while clubhouse members Eric St. Pierre and Matthew Coffin are sunk into plush green chairs nearby, chatting.
It’s pouring rain outside and a trailer for the rock climbing movie “Free Solo” plays on the television beside the kitchen. The room is quiet.
“This is a new concept,” said St. Pierre, gesturing to the clubhouse. “A lot of people aren’t sure what its function is and what its goals are.”
So what is the function of the clubhouse, which opened in April in the former Acadia Realty Group building on Main Street, sandwiched between John Edwards Market and the Maine Grind building?
“The biggest thing is that we’re here to form relationships,” said St. Pierre.
“Mental health isn’t just all the crazy people. We just have some difficult times. You’re not alone in this. We can help you deal with that.”
The clubhouse opened this spring with start-up money provided by Bangor-based nonprofit OHI Maine. It is part of Clubhouse International, an organization with hundreds of worldwide affiliates that offer services to those with a mental illness. Clubhouses help members find jobs and housing, host get-togethers and lunches, and offer the structure of a routine.
“It’s a place to be in touch with other people,” said Coffin, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was spending so many hours alone at home. Since I’ve been coming here my stress attacks have decreased. The contact with other people — instead of talking to the walls at home or to the computer — is so much better.”
Eagles’ Nest (the name was chosen by its members) is open daily during the week. Days begin with a morning meeting, with members and staff (there are two staff at Eagles’ Nest) making decisions about goals together.
“I’m used to the clinical approach,” said St. Pierre. “Here, we make the decisions. We’re all equal.
“Everybody has an equal say. Everybody brings something.”
There are chores and tasks to be divvied up-part of the “Work Ordered Day.” Members may be assigned to give tours to visitors, or run the snack bar, or promote the organization on Facebook. There is also food prep to be done: the clubhouse offers a daily salad bar for $1 or an entree for $1.50. A full lunch with salad and entree costs $2.
“We like [the day to be] fluid, so we can deal with contingencies as they come up,” Coffin explained.
To be a member, one must be diagnosed with a mental illness and be covered under MaineCare, although volunteers don’t have to meet those qualifications.
Members write their own goals, said Advisory Board Member and Clinical Social Worker Rebecca Hunter.
“Your goals can be anything from showing up and sitting and talking for awhile, if that’s a challenge for you, to working outside the clubhouse with support.”
“I’m really excited by the model,” Hunter continued. “It’s very client-directed and fits with my philosophy of helping people.”
The first clubhouse, known as Fountain House, was started in New York in 1948. It started, as the Clubhouse International website tells it, “when a group of former patients of a New York psychiatric hospital began to meet together informally, as a kind of ‘club.’ It was organized as a support system for people living with mental illness, rather than as a service or a treatment program.”
Maine has five clubhouses, most sprinkled along Route 95 from Bangor to Lewiston. Ellsworth is the newest, having opened in April, but already has 12 members, Harris said.
Its funding right now comes largely from MaineCare reimbursements, but there will be other funding opportunities (such as grants) after Eagles’ Nest becomes accredited, which takes roughly 18 months.
Hunter, a former gardener who has a social work practice nearby, came upon the clubhouse in large part by accident. The opening in April, she said, coincided with her former husband A.J. Emmett’s celebration of life services at Fogtown Brewing Co.
Emmett suffered from bipolar disorder and died by suicide earlier this spring, said Hunter. He struggled with asking for help and treatment for his illness, she continued, so his family wanted money raised in his honor to go toward a program to help those in need of mental health services.
After the event at Fogtown, said Hunter, “I walked up here with cash.” The clubhouse used the money to put up its Eagles’ Nest sign out front.
“The sign is kind of a memorial to A.J.,” she said. Now Hunter comes by several days each week and often refers clients to the space.
Both St. Pierre and Coffin say the clubhouse has given them space to be themselves.
“It’s nice to feel like I fit in,” Coffin said. “I’m just as crazy as everybody here. Other places in society the stigma is there.”
“Here,” St. Pierre added, “you’re not your mental health diagnosis. You’re an individual. You’re not a case file, you’re not a number. You’re a person before everything else.”
He smiled slightly, hands clasped.
“It’s a very, very empowering thing.”
For more information, visit the Eagles’ Nest Clubhouse on Facebook at facebook.com/eaglesnestclubhousemaine or call 389-3300. All are also welcome at the open house on Thursday, Oct. 17 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at 190 Main Street.