T his must be the place.
Fellowship Place, the vaunted “Supportive Community Fostering Mental Health,” has returned to its longtime headquarters on Elm Street in the Dwight/Edgewood neighborhood.
The organization reopened its “clubhouse” at 441 Elm last month after a year-long renovation. The discovery of an underground oil tank added weeks of extra work. While the clubhouse was closed, Fellowship members (dozens of whom live just a few yards from the clubhouse, in other buildings maintained by Fellowship Place) had to meet several blocks away on Howe Street at the community development agency known as The Connection Inc.
The revamped Fellowship Place looks spectacular. The clubhouse building, while not much larger than it was, has a much more open design, with the administrative offices neatly arranged along the perimeter so that there is maximum space for people to congregate in the dining and program rooms. There’s a fuller kitchen area, and lots of light beaming through windows and skylights.
But the clubhouse (or Psychosocial Rehab Center, as it is more technically known) was just the last piece in a full-scale reinvigoration of the entire Fellowship Place campus. Whole other buildings were involved, most notably the new Phyllis McDowell Center. McDowell, the philanthropist daughter of ballroom-dance icon Arthur Murray, was a longtime benefactor of Fellowship Place and an important local advocate for mental health issues.
Executive Director Mary Guerrera calls the new Fellowship Place “an investment in the neighborhood as well as in the agency.” Not only is there a nice-looking bunch of buildings, there is renewed life and energy on the block again. Hundreds of people are being helped.
But Fellowship Place has many other programs: for writers, for actors, for those interested in working with computers. As new volunteers continue to join the organization (easier now that they’ve centralized their location again), more and more new programs will be added.
Fellowship Place currently has over 300 members. Many visit the clubhouse daily and eat meals there. Twenty-eight members are also Fellowship Place residents; the organization owns several houses within a block or two of the clubhouse.
Having so many people who deal with mental health issues in one area doesn’t just create a supportive community. It also unites that community around important issues and events.
Fellowship members have become activists for statewide organizations such as the Keep the Promise Coalition, which advocates for improved and comprehensive mental health care in Connecticut. Fellowship members help each other find employment, create collaborative projects, or work through problems. This past Tuesday, they turned out en masse to vote in the Presidential election.
They also get a chance to have a little fun. This month, Fellowship Place is holding its first-ever Prom, a huge occasion for those members who weren’t able to attend school and have longed for a dance party of their own.
Denise Gentile, who’s been an administrative staff member at Fellowship Place for nine years, explains that there is a “member government” which meets once a month and pays dues which further the implementation of more programs and events. She marvels at how, “over the last 50 years, many individuals have helped Fellowship Place develop from an all-volunteer drop-in center to a full-service community organization. It’s been a total transformation. And everything Fellowship Place has accomplished has been a public/private partnership,” including the clubhouse finding its permanent downtown location on Elm Street in the mid-1980s. “This is a positive and welcoming community,” Gentile says, “where people with mental illness can overcome challenges and be the best they can be.”
Speakers at the reopening ceremony included Helen Rohne, a Fellowship Place member for 17 years, and a six-term president of the member government, which in turn earns her a seat on Fellowship Place’s board of directors. Rohne couldn’t contain her glee, from the joy of “coming home” to the Dwight Street location to a deep appreciation for “the multiple stalls in the bathroom.”
Guests were given tours of the expanded main building, including the “Quiet Room” (“because the club space can get pretty hopping”), conference rooms (one of which was projecting a slide show of Fellowship gatherings, sound tracked with the theme music from the TV show Cheers) and the new art room, which is well-stocked with art supplies from clay to paints to canvases and easels.
Its arts programs have given Fellowship Place an international reputation. Several painters and multi-media artists have been acclaimed as “outsider” artists (the art world’s term for untrained talents) and been given exhibitions in professional galleries.
State politicians were there to help celebrate. “What’s wonderful,” said State Rep. Pat Dillon, “is how it started with community support.” U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal declared Fellowship Place “a breakthrough,” not just in the mental health care it provides but in how it grew from a combination of “state funds, bonding funds and developmental funds,” uniting business communities and social communities alike.
Pat Rehmer, the commissioner of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health & Addiction Service, noted that Fellowship Place was “one of the first psychosocial clubs in Connecticut” and that even today, “not all psychosocial clubs have member boards.” She described such organizations as providing important opportunities for education and employment, as well as a forum with which to counter discrimination and stigmatization.
Among the other guests at the festivities was Kate Walton, who served as director of Fellowship Place from 1985 to 2000. Walton was a board member of the organization when it first existed in the old Jewish Community Center building on Chapel Street in the late 1970s, and was instrumental in moving it to the Elm Street location it’s been at for 25 years (excepting those renovation months, of course). She adds to the lore about diverse communities joining together to support Fellowship, recalling that the owner of the now-redone building on Elm Street “had experienced mental illness himself, and offered to not just sell us the building but owner-finance it himself.” It’s an arrangement that allowed Fellowship Place not just to survive the demise of the old JCC building, but establish itself as part of a thriving residential community.
“We wanted to demystify the place,” Walton says. Consider it done. Neither mystified nor musty, the new Fellowship Place is a vital little village of health, hope and rehabilitation.
441 Elm Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.