The end of the year can be a good time to reflect on the past 12 months and count your blessings. For the staff and members of the Westwinds Clubhouse in Fitchburg, they can include each other at the top of that list.
Westwinds Clubhouse, a program of Community Healthlink Inc. and one of 31 clubhouses funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, is one of 341 clubhouses worldwide that strives to give individuals with a mental illness a place to go, an opportunity to learn and be productive, and care and support from staff and peers.
According to Marcia Aucoin, Westwinds program director, one of the unique features of each clubhouse is also one of its best. "One of the fundamentals of the model is that we work in partnership with the members," says Aucoin, who after 17 years as director, will be retiring this January.
Aucoin began as a staff member at Westwinds in 1978 and has seen many changes through the years, including occupying three different sites throughout Fitchburg. With 35 years invested in the program and its people, retirement will be bittersweet for Aucoin, who counts clubhouse members among her own supports. She shows off a retirement gift received just that day from a member, her eyes tearing up slightly. It is clear the impact staff and members have on each other runs deep, and it runs both ways. Together, they are the heart and soul of the clubhouse, and therein lies the key to the clubhouse's long-term success.
While staff direct and oversee program activities, clubhouse members help with many of the day-to-day activities that make the program run. Depending on the needs of the day and the interests of each individual, you can find clubhouse members answering the phone, updating the clubhouse Facebook page, and manning the in-house used clothing store or lending library.
Several members hold jobs or attend college but still come on a regular basis, some even daily before and after work or classes. They help with chores, visit with staff and other members, and build upon the connections and confidence they have gained despite their individual challenges.
Nestled on the first floor of a large brick building at 545 Westminster St. in Fitchburg, Westwinds occupies a honeycomb of rooms, each assigned a specific purpose. There's a commercially equipped kitchen, a library, a used-clothing store, and several rooms dedicated to educational pursuits, whether it be GED, college or basic math or reading skills. Several larger rooms are set up for daily clubhouse meetings, meals or classes such as financial literacy.
A typical day at Westwinds can bring 25-35 members, as well as several staff. During a recent visit to attend the annual holiday party, the largest meeting/dining room was filled to capacity, as members donned Santa hats, sang Christmas carols led by a very talented member playing his guitar, and enjoyed Chinese food. Members were welcoming and eager to talk about the support they've found at Westwinds.
"It feels like family," more than one member shared, which, to a population that may not always be accepted and supported by their own family members, can make a world of difference in quality of life.
It is the focus on reconnection that is a huge part of the clubhouse tenet: reconnection to work, to education and to others. While many clubhouse members pursue volunteer and employment opportunities with the support and guidance of staff, there are also various group outings, from holiday shopping to attending a mental-health rally in Boston and at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Occasionally, members go out for lunch or breakfast, learning to become comfortable in a not-so-comfortable world. Placing a food order or calculating the tip can be a new and overwhelming challenge for some. Upon their return to the clubhouse, they report on their experience to the rest of the group, giving feedback on how the establishment received them and the treatment and level of acceptance they received.
Aucoin states, "(Members) have learned to speak their voice and that people will listen to them."
To join the Clubhouse, a referral form needs to be filled out and submitted. Anyone can submit a referral form -- the individual, a family member or a local service provider agency. Referrals can be made by contacting the clubhouse at 978-345-1581 or downloaded from westwindsclubhouse.org.
Westwinds serves the communities of Ashby, Ayer, Berlin, Bolton, Clinton, Fitchburg, Groton, Harvard, Lancaster, Leominster, Lunenbug, Pepperell, Sterling and Townsend.