Home away from home

Drop-in center supports people with mental health disabilities

Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER
Sunshine Connection Director Pat Johnson, from left, and consumers Shawn Corson, Gerald Woodring and Dan O’Donnell, look over games Tuesday that were donated to the drop-in center.

Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER Sunshine Connection Director Pat Johnson, from left, and consumers Shawn Corson, Gerald Woodring and Dan O’Donnell, look over games Tuesday that were donated to the drop-in center.

LEWISTOWN — Sunshine Connection, a mental health drop-in center in Lewistown which has been serving the area since the 1970s, continues to help people with mental health disabilities reintegrate into the community.

With a new director and board, many changes are being made to help empower the center’s consumers and break down the stigmas associated with mental illness within the community.

One of the first things the new board did was to listen to the consumers to find out their needs or interests. Reesman said educational tools is one of the most popular answers. To better help educate the consumers, the board has been hosting monthly speakers to talk about various subjects like consumer rights to help them learn to be better advocates for themselves. Reesman said many people take advantage of the consumers and the board and the director Pat Johnson are helping give the consumers a voice. Reesman welcomes any group to come and tour the center and give a presentation about their group because the consumers are interested in many topics.

“They want to be more independent,” Reesman said. “They want to learn.”

Having guest speakers at the center also allows for an outreach opportunity for the consumers to meet new people. Volunteers are always welcome to come and play games, socialize or teach skills. If interested, volunteers need to complete a background check first.

The board has also been working to set up an educational room with computers and reading material to teach more life skills. The center is asking for volunteers to come and help with the computers and teach spelling and math skills.

“We would like retired teachers to come in and give a couple hours a week,” Reesman said.

Currently, the center has had three computers donated to it, but would like to have more computers. Those at the center said they are thankful that someone is donating their time to upgrade the wiring in the educational room for the computers.

To help fulfill more of the consumers’ wishes, the center is asking the community for help by donating items including educational supplies, arts and crafts supplies, DVDs, music, stereo and games. Above all requests, the board is wanting a van to be donated to allow the center to take the consumers on excursions to places like the Belleville sale or Christmas shopping.

“Consumers don’t get out much, especially out of Mifflin County,” Reesman said.

The center relies on C.A.R.S. to transport consumers now for outings, but the costs add up. If the center does receive a van, Reesman hopes that someone will help pay for the insurance as well.

Other donations needed are card tables, an oven, gloves, hats, coats, paper products, personal hygiene items, food and gently-used home decor. Some of these donations will be used in the center’s points system that awards consumers for participating in activities, doing chores or winning bingo. Consumers earn points and then can cash in the points to purchase items like food, hygiene items and home decor that has been donated by the public.

The center offers a free, hot meal everyday, which for some is the only hot cooked meal for the day. Johnson said the Juniata Valley Behavioral and Developmental Services provides the means to purchase food for the consumers which costs around $650 a month to feed around 14 to 20 people a day. Johnson shops at four different stores to find the best deals, but donations of groceries, including meat, would be greatly appreciated.

“I know how to improvise and make something out of nothing,” Johnson said. “Nobody leaves hungry.”

Dawn Rudy who has been a cook at the center for two years she loves what she does and considers the consumers her family.

“It means a lot to know that when I go home at night, I helped someone have a hot meal that day,” Rudy said.

The center means a lot to the consumers as well. Dan O’Donnell, who serves as a maintenance man for the center, appreciates the center giving him something to do and helping him learn how to do new things. Charlie Clinger, who lives in domiciliary care, said the center gives him a place to go to every day and he enjoys playing bingo and watching movies there. Shawn Corson agrees that the center is a nice place to go and said “We all get along really good.”

Johnson said the center wants to make a difference, even if it’s just little, in the consumers’ lives.

“We are trying to make it (the center) more for them,” Johnson said. I’ve worked with many people with disabilities all my life. I have a rapport with them. I don’t have high expectations and I know their limits. I know how society treated them. They are like everybody else. It’s not their fault.”

The center offers a safe environment for people to socialize, communicate and participate in activities that support recovery. Tracy Reesman, board president, said the consumers enjoy the unstructured, no-pressure atmosphere offered at the center, where they feel comfortable and choose what activities they want to do.

Open to any Mifflin County resident, older than 18, that has mental, physical, emotional and/or intellectual disabilities, the center welcomes everyone and does not require a mental health diagnosis. Interested consumers must fill out an application. A free meal, socialization and support, are offered and if consumers need outside resources, the center will direct them where to go. The center does not offer counseling.

Finding jobs for the consumers is something that Johnson said she would like to see happen, even if it’s something small like raking leaves or helping someone with a small task.

“It means a lot for them to have a job,” Johnson said. “They don’t care about being paid. They make the best workers. They miss the store and warehouse. I would like to find them a job in the community. It gives them a sense they are contributing.”

The center’s recycling center located in the warehouse closed in April 2015 and subsequently the thrift store closed in February of this year. The landlord of the building wanted to use the area that housed that recycling center and once that shut down, the center lost a big part of its budget. The store was still open until February of this year, but the store was not making enough money to pay the rent.

The non-profit center is thankful that is has a director, board and staff that are willing to work without pay. The center does receive government funding, but it’s not enough to cover all expenses.

Reesman wants to assure the community the center is not closing, despite rumors. She said if the center closed it would have a negative impact on the community.

“The consumers would not get a meal, peer-to-peer support or interaction,” Reesman said. “It would be devastating.”

To become a bigger part of the community, the consumers like to participate in local events or host a dance to help realign themselves as community members. On Nov. 18 the center is holding a dance night at the ComPASS Center and inviting consumers from other centers with mental health disabilities in the tri-county area to attend. A meet-and-greet time will be held to help the adults meet others with the same situations. The dance is 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and is free. Guests may bring refreshments.

Reesman is asking the community to invite the center’s consumers to an event and welcome them into the community.

“Give us a call and invite the consumers,” Reesman said. “That would be really nice.”

To make the consumers’ Christmas special, a wish list has been created by each person.

“It would be nice if each person could get something,” Reesman said. “Some don’t get anything at all.” Contact the center to get a copy of the list.

The center is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at the 518 S. Juniata St., Lewistown location.

For more information, call 242-4755.

“We want people to know we are here and open,” Johnson said. “Anyone is welcome to come.”

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