There’s a place in Marin where the lives of hundreds of individuals living with mental illness are being transformed, where people are getting the chance to overcome obstacles to housing and employment and live the kind of healthy, productive lives many of us take for granted. It may be the first time many of them have a glimpse of hope that they can fit into mainstream society, where their behavioral health issues often set them apart.
Buckelew Programs is a 40-year-old nonprofit organization based in San Rafael that provides assistance to people with mental illness to live, work, learn and participate in their communities. Its clients live in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties. During 2009 and 2010, Buckelew served more than 1,000 people, with 500 receiving housing services and 160 placed in competitive employment each year.
“We’re all about creating homes, jobs and, ultimately, hope for people with behavioral health issues,” says Steve Ramsland, Buckelew’s executive director. The term “behavioral health issues” is a description that “attempts to be a little more inclusive…and takes into account that mental health often involves other chronic conditions, including substance abuse,” he says.
“Buckelew’s vision statement [“People with mental illness can live healthy and productive lives as family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.”] reflects its belief that any one of us can be impacted by a mental illness and, if we are, we still deserve the opportunity for full participation in all aspects of society,” says Ramsland. “It also embodies the beliefs that people with serious mental illness can and do recover.”
According to the Buckelew Programs website, an estimated 20 percent of the American population (one in five people) has some sort of serious mental illness during their lifetime. People suffering from serious mental illness comprise about 2 percent of the general population.
The agency’s programs have an impressive record of success that supports its vision. Buckelew’s clients have one of the lowest rehospitalization rates in the country, according to Ramsland. Ninety percent of all Buckelew’s clients avoided psychiatric rehospitalization in 2009, when the national rate for people with serious mental illness was 44 percent. And for those Buckelew clients who were working, the rehospitalization rate was even lower at 3.5 percent.
It all starts with finding clients a stable living environment. “Home is really the foundation,” says Ramsland. The organization owns a number of apartment complexes, single-family homes and, on any given night, provides housing for approximately 500 people. Some of that is transitional housing, but much of it is supportive permanent housing that includes assistance with life skills, case management and medication management.
“Employment opportunities are a real cornerstone of the recovery process,” says Ramsland. “For the same reasons the rest of us want to find work with value, people with serious mental illness really need that focus and meaning in their lives. It helps them feel good about themselves. For us, the key message is we’re trying to give people a sense of hope.”
One of the innovative ways Buckelew provides job training is with its social enterprises, which include the Blue Skies Café and Blue Skies Cleaning Services. Clients are provided job training and employment with the enterprises and then have the opportunity to find work in the community. The agency receives support from REDF (formerly the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund), a San Francisco-based venture philanthropy organization that invests in nonprofit-run businesses. Ramsland says REDF provides Buckelew with technical expertise through consultants, funding for personnel and working capital, and unrestricted grants. “REDF is not only trying to grow the social enterprise field but is also gathering data to make the case and demonstrate the value of social enterprises,” he says.
This month, a new Blue Skies Coffees and Teas outlet will open in Napa, located at 2344 Old Sonoma Road (Building B). Ramsland says the goal is to have both Blue Skies outlets be training sites for clients. The Blue Skies Café has partnered with Equator Coffee, an award-winning San Rafael roaster whose customers include Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville and the Rustic Bakery in Larkspur. The Napa outlet will feature baked goods from the renowned Model Bakery.
Another social enterprise on the near horizon is a program that will connect small family farmers in Sonoma County with large institutional customers, such as hospitals and schools. Ramsland says the enterprise would include a kitchen and processing facility and “we would work with local farmers to bring their local, organic produce to kids and people in hospitals.” A feasibility study has been completed and Buckelew hopes to launch it this winter.
At the original Blue Skies Café, located at the Marin Health & Wellness Campus in San Rafael, clients are trained to be baristas, learn customer service skills, operate a cash register and interact with the public. Ramsland says he often brings visitors to the café to illustrate how the program works.
“One of the most rewarding reactions I get from people, donors or guests who come to lunch is when they ask, ‘Where are the clients?’” says Ramsland. “I tell them, you’ve been interacting with them the whole time. They’re so motivated, you see their customer service skills and enthusiasm for their work, so people see them as regular baristas. They don’t see them as stigmatized individuals. These people want to work. The work ethic and the motivation are there.”
Shelley Norris-Alvarez is the director of employment services for Buckelew Programs and says the emphasis is on people getting and keeping jobs. “We provide the mental health support and employment skills to help people be successful with their employment goals,” she says. There are typically 175 people involved in various phases of the employment program.
“Some of our clients have never worked before, others have professional experience and others have worked in a field they may not want to go back to,” says Norris-Alvarez. “We help people cope with the symptoms of their illness, help them develop their résumé, help with the job search and identify their skillsets. Most of our clients have been enmeshed in the mental health system at some point and they’ve begun to look at themselves as mentally ill rather than seeing their own strengths, capabilities and potential. We help them identify their strengths and abilities and help them get a job that matches that, because we want to help them find a job where they can be successful.”
Jason K. hadn’t held a job for 17 years before he came to Buckelew about 16 months ago. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse and was homeless for a five-year stretch before he decided to sober up. He also suffers from depression and other mental health issues, but he now takes medication and says “it seems to be getting me by.”
Jason surprised himself with the decision to change his lifestyle. “I thought that day would never come when I put that [alcohol] down. But for some reason, I just threw in the towel, got a bus to Marin General” and checked into a rehabilitation program. “It just kicked in that I wanted my life back,” he says. “I was too lonely, and everybody I hung out with was either dying or getting sick.”
An acquaintance “I was ‘camping’ with got himself together before I did,” says Jason, using a euphemism for his homeless days. The friend recommended the Buckelew Programs. Jason says he decided to give it a try because, “I had a lot of time on my hands after I quit drinking.”
Jason is now a lead barista at the Blue Skies Café and is able to train other employees in the art of the espresso coffee drink. He’s quick to smile and speaks with enthusiasm and passion about what he’s been able to accomplish at Buckelew. It wasn’t an easy transition to go from a life of making excuses to being a responsible employee. “It was pretty hard,” Jason admits. “I really wasn’t in the state of mind that I could be working. I knew I had to do something different because what I was doing wasn’t working. Basically, the people here told me to keep coming to work. Believe me, I had every excuse in the book to make that phone call to not go to work.”
Along the way, some things changed for Jason. First, he got help finding the right medication for his illness. And then, “it was finding people that share the same feather as I do…this is a place where for the first time in their life, they can come and feel comfortable and not be judged for having a mental illness. Most of us had a hard time at school and a hard time having friends. That’s the thing we have in common. Having Buckelew backing you up and having a chance to succeed at the café, you can move on and have a chance at a normal life.”
Every step in Jason’s recovery brings him closer to that life. He’s been a lead barista for nearly a year. “This is the longest I’ve ever held a job in my life,” he says. “This is the only job I never wanted to quit. It’s the responsibility I’ve gotten here. I realized there’s more to life than talking about alcohol content and how to catch fish.”
He’s grateful for the opportunity he’s had at Buckelew. “I feel truly blessed by this place,” Jason says. “Who knows where I’d be if I wasn’t here? It’s the first time I feel like I can accomplish things. I want to help people. I figure I have the second half of my life and it clicked in that there are certain things I have to do in my life. Being here was definitely a change from hanging out by myself and being depressed. People here listen to each other. That’s what they say, that Buckelew is a nurturing place.”
Ramsland explains that the people in Buckelew programs have had hard lives. They’ve coped with mental illness, sometimes there’s substance abuse, and sometimes they’re homeless. Some clients are teens that may experience depression or have their first psychiatric experience. The Transition Age Youth (TAY) program is aimed at early intervention. “We’re able to help that person early on so we can prevent the cycle of chronicity,” he says.
The TAY program was Elva G.’s introduction to Buckelew. Her therapist recommended she try it out. After participating in the TAY program, taking a few classes in art and meditation, she decided to try to get a job in the Blue Skies Café. “When I started here, I was terrified,” says Elva, who’s 20 years old and grew up in Marin. “I’d never worked before and I didn’t know what to expect. It’s hard to remember what it was like then, because I’m so comfortable now.”
Comfortable wasn’t a feeling she’d experienced growing up. Elva is diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder (ADD). “Most of my childhood, I was really small and really introverted and didn’t talk to anyone and didn’t like being around people because I was so shy. Going to TAY helped me get out of myself a little,” she says.
After eight months at the café, making espresso drinks and working the register, Elva was able to train other baristas and had been offered a permanent position at Blue Skies, but with help from Buckelew Personnel Services, in November she was hired by a San Rafael coffee shop and is now working in the community.
When we met, she showed no evidence of being shy or terrified. She’s a friendly, self-assured young woman who answers questions directly, makes frequent eye contact and smiles easily. “This job [at Blue Skies] definitely boosts my self esteem and my comfort as a person—and it makes me happy,” says Elva. “The people I teach can really make progress and they’ll go on to do other jobs, or work here. It really is pretty gratifying.”
Elva says, “Just in general, I’m a lot more confident and happy, because I’m doing something I like and I’m around people I really like. I used to be in this tiny little bubble of a world, and now I’ve met so many people that it’s opened me up. I used to sort of not like being around people, and now it’s fun to schmooze with customers.”
She had such a difficult time in high school she dropped out. At first, she was relieved, but, “I’d stay home and play with my cats and play video games. Doing nothing really. I was in a sort of foggy depression kind of thing. That’s probably where I’d still be. That’s why I am really grateful I got to do this. It really helped me grow as a person.”
Elva has noticed that since she’s been working, her depression has lessened and her focusing abilities and attention span “have gotten much better. I’d lose my train of thought in mid-sentence. That happens much less often.”
Norris-Alvarez notes that employment not only helps the clients financially, but studies have shown it decreases an individual’s symptoms when he or she is working. She points to the 3.5 percent rehospitalization rate among Buckelew clients with jobs, compared with the national rate of 44 percent. “If you’re working, you don’t focus on your illness. You focus on the task at hand and what’s required of you,” she says. “In the past, people with mental illness weren’t expected to work. Now we’re saying not only can you work, but you can be a valued member of the workforce. When they do work, they feel more productive and they feel better about themselves. We’ve noticed a decrease in symptoms. Nowadays, working is considered a significant part of their recovery.”
Another important aspect of the Buckelew Programs is linking clients with prospective employers. Dan Daniels Sr. is Buckelew’s marketing and community relations manager who works to expand Blue Skies Cleaning Services, another social enterprise operation that trains clients and places them in jobs. In some instances, Daniels says Buckelew will pay an employee’s salary while he or she is being trained and “see if it’s a good fit. If we find the right jobs for people, they’ll stay in it forever and become an asset for that company. We can provide the training and assistance that let clients succeed.”
Daniels worked for the Department of Corrections as a parole agent before joining Buckelew Programs. “I was so impressed with its mission, the quality of people and the quality of service that was being provided for the people,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate to have kind and caring people, and we’re rewarded by the clients. In this work, they’re so appreciative of everything we do for them. When you sit across the table from someone who hasn’t worked for a while, it’s great to see the magic that starts to happen when they realize they can do that. They have a great desire to succeed and they want to have purpose.”
One of the employers that works with Buckelew is Service Management Systems (SMS), the facilities management company at the Northgate Mall in San Rafael, which has hired at least six people who were trained through Blue Skies Cleaning Services. “It’s been a real rewarding experience personally and, in my opinion, for the entire mall community,” says Lee McDougle, facilities manager at Northgate.
McDougle says Buckelew “did its due diligence in helping people who really want to work. It’s actually been a win-win situation for our staffing needs and for Buckelew.”
The barriers that Buckelew clients must overcome in their own lives are the ones that can be the most daunting. Richard W. works for Blue Skies Cleaning Services. At first glance, his story makes him an unlikely candidate for success, but his enthusiasm and honesty about his past—and his hope for the future—are persuasive. Richard, who is 50, tells his story in a burst of words, a stream of consciousness that’s neither linear nor chronologic.
Born in Richmond, California, he arrived in Marin City at the age of 13 and enrolled at Tamalpais High, where it was quickly discovered he was illiterate. As a young man, he was on his own and was in trouble with the law by the time he was 25. He spent half of his adult life in and out of prison for drug and alcohol offenses, an experience he says traumatized him and contributed to his mental health issues. He takes medication and says he’s happy to be alive and have a job. Ecstatic is a better description.
“I like what I do. I’m glad to go to work. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work,” he says. “I’m happy. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I do the work and I have the money. They gave me the opportunity I didn’t want. At first I wasn’t too interested, but now that I see what it feels like to be working in the community and to be a law abiding citizen, I like that. Whatever time I have left on this Earth, I plan on being happy.” Richard is currently living in a temporary shelter and saving his money to get his own place and maybe a car.
“When I first started [at Blue Skies], I thought I wouldn’t be here long enough to complete the goal I set. I thought it was going to be a difficult task because they’re going to find out I can’t read or write. But something came to my mind that you have to face your fears. I got up and said I’m just going to do this. If it doesn’t work out, at least I tried.”
With the help of the staff at Blue Skies Cleaning Services, Richard is learning to distinguish cleaning materials by their symbols, and he’s taking reading classes at the shelter where he lives. “If you like the job, you get along with the people you work with, and you have people backing you up in your corner, you can’t go wrong,” he says. “I didn’t get all this when I was a kid and I’m getting it now when I’m a grown person. I’m very grateful for Buckelew to have this opportunity to advance myself and my goals.
“Some days I feel sad, but once I get to work, I work it out and every day I get back to the shelter and thank God I spent another day on Earth. Every day is a blessing to me. I take life a lot more seriously today. Today I respect other people and they have respect for me—for the person I hope to be and will be.”
Placido Salazar is the work adjustment counselor who supervises Richard. “It’s guys like Richard that make our job worthwhile,” he says. “To think we could bring him to this level makes it worthwhile.”
“Five months ago, I was just standing on street corners looking at all the people going to work,” says Richard. “Now I’m one of those people. I’m motivated and ready to see what the next test is for me.”
By Barry Dugan
Chances are pretty good that you know someone with a disability. It might be they have a learning disability, emotional or mental health issues, visual impairment or a developmental disability. In many instances, they not only want to find a job, but with the right kind of support and training, they’re completely capable of being model employees.
“The idea is to recognize that one in six people in Sonoma County have a disability and, often, it’s invisible. There are several types of incentives for employers to hire people with disabilities,” says Margaret Panely, senior vocational rehabilitation counselor with the state Department of Rehabilitation. “The important thing to know for employers is that there are many kinds of accommodations that are available at low or no cost to them. Also, by participating, employers become part of a community-wide effort, gain recognition and enhance public relations for their organization.”
The Sonoma County Mayors’ Committee Best Practices Awards, in which Panely is involved, provide that sort of recognition. Awards for large companies in 2010 went to Kmart and Whole Foods for their efforts for developing job opportunities. Santa Rosa’s Simple Office Solutions was honored in the small business category. Individual Initiative Awards that recognize an employee with a disability who has provided exemplary initiative in the workplace went to Oscar Guzman (National Alliance on Mental Illness), Matt Quillen (G & G Markets) and Matthew Rochioli (Santa Rosa Junior College Bookstore). The Service Provider Award, which recognizes a service provider such as a job developer, counselor or job coach for the leadership necessary to achieve placement of people with disabilities, was given to Becoming Independent (see “Business Is the Bottom Line”).
Panely said the Mayors’ Committee is a nonprofit group that works collaboratively with human services agencies, state, county and city officials and community organizations throughout Sonoma County to encourage employment programs for people with disabilities. The Mayor’s committee is made up of representatives from several workforce development agencies, including Disabilities Services and Legal Center, service organizations such as Rotary, countywide mayors and elected officials, and volunteers interested in promoting the cause. As a member of the committee, the Department of Rehabilitation has an active job training and development program that works in conjunction with the various nonprofit agencies and employers.
“We only work with people who are motivated and persistent,” says Panely. “Through our screening process, these potential employees have demonstrated their excitement and willingness to work hard. We provide career assessment, assist with overcoming obstacles to employment, define and provide needed accommodations, and provide necessary training to make sure they’ve stabilized and are reliable, skilled and ready for employment. They’re all very well prepared to handle the issues of work.”
The Department of Rehabilitation can provide funding for on-the-job training so an employer can decide whether prospective employees are a good fit before they hire them. And there are tax incentives and federal stimulus funds available for hiring people with disabilities.
“One of the biggest concerns for employers is the fear that a person with a disability won’t have the stamina or mental capacity to handle the work, or that they’re going to be a drain,” says Panely. “By the time we’re promoting them, they’re stable and employment-ready.”
Panely points to a study that people with disabilities had no more absenteeism or health issues related to the workplace than regular employees. “Most are more motivated to end the state or federal support by working hard for their new employer,” says Panely.
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