Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Scrabble, Songs, and Sandwiches

Today [June 7, 2012] I visited NAMI's Social Group, which used to be called Soup Group, until we quit serving soup and started serving sandwiches, but Sandwich Group didn’t have quite the same ring to it. We recently had to move our office and with the change we decided to hold the group elsewhere while we transition. Jackie, T.J. and Rick have been running Social Group at the North Valley Mental Health facility since our move. Since then, I have had limited interaction with those individuals who benefit from the services NAMI provides. I have been so busy in my own world, the move, our recent Open House, other daily tasks, not to mention everything outside of work! So I have been looking forward to attending Social Group and talking with some of the folks who attend.
Recently the number of participants in social group has grown. Between 30 and 40 people have been coming consistently for a few months now. I want to share with you some of the great things I saw from our participants.

*I have changed the names of some of the individuals I spoke with for confidentiality purposes.

Jackie and I arrived at the basement of North Valley around 11:25 a.m. and while group doesn’t start until 11:30 a.m., people were already in line for their sandwich. Jackie introduced me to everyone and while I thought they might be a little skeptical that I was there to “write about them”, I was wrong! Everyone was immediately friendly and welcoming. One man, John, quickly pulled out the Scrabble board and challenged me to a game. I love Scrabble and can never turn down a game, so I was more than happy to comply!

I let John finish his sandwich while I set up the game, and his large bites indicated this might have been his first meal of the day. Jackie told me on the way over that many participants were part of the mental health court system. Social Group is one of the only places they can go for a meal, a welcoming smile, and interactions with people who “get it.” People who have been through similar situations and know what it feels like to go through the “system.”

John and I started our game. We went on a few rounds, before he had to go take his meds. So we took a short break and I went to talk to another gentleman, Leo, who was Native American. Jackie has told him she used to work for the Indian Health Service and he brought some items to share including small figurines that he had carved himself, some corn pollen, and a pipe. He went through each of the items showing me his handy work. The small figurines were intricately carved with various stone and he explained each one to me. I marveled at his handy work!

John came back and we got back in the game. John seemed to be experiencing fixed delusions as his conversation got a little hard to follow. When I asked Jackie later what his diagnosis was she said she didn’t know. She told me that she never asks what someone’s diagnosis is because it doesn’t affect her interaction or relationship with them. “I see them first as people; I don’t see them as their illness,” she explains to me, “They are welcomed in as people just as I would welcome anyone into any social circle of mine.” I couldn’t agree more.

Most of the time we were playing, the gentleman to my right was strumming his mandolin. It was the perfect background noise, and his tunes were amazing. He told me that he had only been playing for a couple of years; he had taken lessons previously but for the most part he was teaching himself. Although he was a little slow in his conversation, he was extremely intelligent, explaining some of the notes for me as I watched in awe.

John kicked my butt in Scrabble, although I did hold my own for a while there. We ended our game as people were slowly filtering out; moving on to the next appointment or meeting. These folks are some of the coolest people I’ve had the opportunity to interact with in quite some time. They come to this group to exercise their social skills and be with people who understand them and don’t ask questions. They get a nice meal of sandwiches purchased from Valley Catering Services and amazing desserts generously donated by Russ Juillerat of World's Finest Chocolate. They know that the group will be there for them. Jackie, T.J. and Rick are on hand to answer any questions that may come up and resources are distributed to the participants. (This week Jackie handed out discounted prescription cards.)

I can’t stress the importance of this group enough. On average 20 individuals who attend social group are in the mental health court system. The mental health court system is designed to help prevent them from re-offending.  Fostering healthy relationships is an important part of preventing relapses.  The Social Group provides an opportunity for everyone to interact in an environment that’s safe and welcoming.

I had an amazing experience at Social Group. I want the community and our supporters to know about this program and to give them a renewed desire to advocate on behalf of those living with a mental illness, because as Jackie said, we're all people, first and foremost.