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Agency fights stigma, helps clients thrive

Kristen Martin, executive director of Thrive, at the Clubhouse. Kristen Martin, executive director of Thrive, at the Clubhouse.

At the Clubhouse, adults with mental health needs take minutes of house meetings, put out a newsletter, handle cooking and cleanup in the kitchen, do simple bookkeeping and mow the grass.


The old Sixth Avenue Clubhouse has been around since 1983, and in that time it has been more a more stable and dependable provider of mental health treatment in Western North Carolina than the state superstructure that hovers precariously over it. The Clubhouse is now located in the old Spectrum group home, which closed. It gets funding from a variety of sources, including Henderson County, state and federal programs, the United Way, churches and private donors.
The Clubhouse has an average daily attendance of about 25, said executive director Kristen Martin.
"At the Clubhouse we get about $9 an hour per person (in funding); it's an 8-to-1 staff ratio," she said. "Our overhead is only 11 percent because I put our money back into the program. When we did our strategic planning and rebranding I got grants for those because I did not want to take that our of actual program dollars."
The rebranding, funded by the community foundations of Henderson County and Western North Carolina, transformed the Sixth Avenue Psychiatric Rehabilitation Partners Inc. to Thrive, under the lodestar of "moving people from surviving to thriving."
Thrive also operates ACTT, the Assertive Community Treatment Team, which includes a team leader, psychiatrist, registered nurse, mental health professionals and substance abuse specialists. The team serves people with a higher level of mental illness that makes them unable to attend the Clubhouse.
The Clubhouse offers its members a transitional employment opportunity — a job of 12 to 15 hours a week that helps the Clubhouse member gain independence and establish a work record.
"The primary vocational problem for the Clubhouse members is not job skills but rather a long history of unemployment, lack of confidence in their abilities and a history of job failure," Thrive says. "Transitional employment allows the member to overcome these difficulties before moving on to successful employment."

Martin gets frustrated because she knows national news about mentally ill people committing violent crime shapes the public perception.
"Schizophrenics aren't dangerous people," she said. "There are people that have an illness but if we give them the prevention and the support that they need, things like that don't happen. I'm really proud that in both of our programs, once somebody comes on board they have no further legal involvement" such as an arrest.
"We might have to help them complete their probation but they don't commit new crimes. They don't end up back in jail. We decrease their hospitalization by over 80 percent; that doesn't mean that they'll never go back to the hospital but it certainly means that it's fewer and further between.
"In the national media, all we see is that people with mental illness are scary and they're dangerous, and that's not the case. We help people get back on their feet, get back in the community. Some of them are able to get off of disability and just work normal jobs. Our services are very cheap compared to what the jail or the hospital has to pay per day. It's disheartening to see in the media — 'mentally ill: shoot people.'
"We don't blame people for having diabetes. We shouldn't blame people for having bipolar. ... It's absurd to think we're going to stigmatize them and not let anybody talk about it and treat it like's it not there."

A background of service

Martin's devotion to her job is rooted both in family connections and education. She has a masters degree in social work. Her aunt is sheriff's Capt. Gloria Nock; her uncle is retired Hendersonville police officer Bill Nock; another uncle, Dean Jackson, is a K9 officer.
"Mom's a nurse, and my grandfather's a first responder," she says. "It's always been service."
She likes to tell her husband, Henderson County detention officer Rob Martin, that he'll get no guests from her programs.
"Out here it's folks that have a mental health need and at least one area of life that they need help in," she said of the Clubhouse roster. "That might mean education, it might mean a job, it could be social skills. They might need help budgeting. Each person is individual so each person gets help that's individual to them. Whether that be that they're homeless, or in a family care home they go wherever they are."
Funding is unstable and always dropping, she says, and the turmoil in the state's mental health structure since 2001 has only added administrative costs while slashing money. Yet Thrive remains committed to all its clients.
"We provide ethical care whether we get paid for it or not," Martin said. "We have members here that we will never get paid for because (doctors) say they're stable enough that they don't need the service. But I know if we don't help them they'll end up back in the hospital."
She's seen Clubhouse members get fulltime jobs and adjust to independent life.
"We help people get to a point where you wouldn't know they have a mental illness," she said. "They just seem like anybody else. And that's why our tagline is moving people from surviving to thriving because when they have a mental health crisis they are in survival mode. They don't have a goal for the next five years.
"But if you help somebody to get stabilized and take their meds, then they're thriving and they become part of the community and they can give back and volunteer. That just makes it better for the whole community."

Thrive's Bids & Blues fundraiser is this weekend: