THE holiday guests sat around an impromptu dining table in the living room like a family too large and unwieldy to fit within the house’s usual boundaries, their heads bowed for grace. The stained-glass windows that framed the fireplace softened the midday winter glare.
“I think we should ask God’s blessing on what we have here together,” Jack Gardner said, underlining the “together,” because what was most important here today, more than the roast beef and lasagna heaped on the plates, was that nobody was alone.
The world spins so fast as the end of each year nears that it’s easy to lose your footing, even if you’re planted firmly in your own life, anchored by family and friends through the holiday swirl. It’s far easier when you’re planted more uncertainly, unless you can find some company in a place like this.
As the brief prayer ended and the two dozen guests set to their meals, a small milestone was reached: The first-ever holiday luncheon had officially begun at Laurel House, the first facility of its kind in New Jersey for those living with serious and persistent mental illness. It opened in October in this old Sears kit house after several years of lobbying and fund-raising by a handful of parents like Mr. Gardner, who had seen what didn’t work for their adult children, and wanted to try something new.
“He’s been through the system, and the system has worked him over pretty good,” said Mr. Gardner, 71, of Piscataway, whose only child, Jeremy, 37, was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia as a teenager. “And for that reason we felt that maybe another approach was going to help him out.”
The other approach is to try to find jobs for people who are often presumed to be unemployable, to provide them with a place like this — a clubhouse, they call it — in which to band together before launching their missions into the wider world. “They want to lead productive lives, and they want not to be a burden to society,” said Tom Malamud, 70, of Glen Ridge, who became the executive director of Laurel House after working for 42 years at Fountain House in Manhattan, the first of what has grown into an international network of more than 300 clubhouses.
As the meal ended, and Christmas music played softly in the background, Andy Kane took compliments for the mushroom-and-cilantro quiche he had brought and stood at a computer in the front room printing out copies of the first edition of the clubhouse newsletter, for which he serves as editor. “Just being here, my thinking’s cleared up,” said Mr. Kane, 37, a Rutgers graduate — biology major, philosophy minor — who had just finished his second year of medical school 13 years ago when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Being around nice people, you realize people are good. And there’s real structure here.”
Mr. Kane comes to the clubhouse from his home in Edison each day it is open — three days a week now, but five days soon — and has been contemplating a possible job. Returning to medicine is out (“too stressful with my condition,” he said), but he has taken up yoga and would like to learn how to teach it. “I’m doing pretty good now,” he said.
Tony Rizzolo looked out the window onto the snow-crusted yard and was relieved he had managed to rake all the leaves into the gutter for collection before they were frozen in place for the winter. The dozen current members do the work that keeps the clubhouse running, under the supervision of Mr. Malamud and his assistant. “Hundreds of pounds of them,” Mr. Rizzolo said of the leaves that covered the yard where they hope to have a garden, a volleyball net and a patio come spring. “There are a lot of trees here.”
Mr. Rizzolo, 51, used to climb tall power transmission towers as an apprentice lineman (“You can see my work over the turnpike,” he said) before he was hospitalized in his 20s for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He doesn’t see much of his family; nor does his wife, Liz, who is also a member here. They met when he drove a van for a program she attended, married three years ago and live together in North Brunswick.
“We’re alone,” said Mr. Rizzolo, who often cooks lunch for the members here. “This has been my new adoption, so to speak.”
The founders of Laurel House managed to raise $250,000 from the Middlesex County Freeholders, private foundations and donors to get it started and keep it running through 2009, but to stay open beyond that — and to expand to other counties, as they would like — they need state financing. “We can’t just keep groveling every year and hoping someone will take pity on us,” said Annette Mayo, 76, who led the fund drive, and whose daughter, Laura, 50, is a member.
New Jersey has traditionally concentrated its mental health money on housing and medical care, not on programs like Laurel House, according to board members. “We gave them decent housing, but we didn’t give them hope, and they vegetated,” said another founder, Jackson Toby, 83, a retired sociology professor at Rutgers.
Mr. Toby was sitting in a corner of the living room with Mr. Gardner, a poignant pairing of two fathers whose children were absent. Mr. Gardner’s son was at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. “Next Christmas, if Jeremy could celebrate it with us, that would be wonderful,” Mr. Gardner said. “This is an important piece of what he would be doing when he comes out.”
Mr. Toby’s daughter, Gail — an Oberlin College graduate and an accomplished rock climber — committed suicide four years ago, a few weeks before her 50th birthday. “I’m very eager to get people when they’re young, before they’ve given up hope,” Mr. Toby said.
Standing by the fireplace was a member who hasn’t, Sumona Awasty, 44, showing the framed piece of needlework on the mantel: a cross-stitch she did of a snow-covered Victorian street, with a horse-drawn carriage, men in top hats and women in bustles. It is a winter scene, and she thought it was too dark, so she added some bright gold paint that wasn’t in the original design. “This is the light coming out of it,” she said, pointing to the rays radiating from the street lamp, and then she moved her finger up to the corner of the night sky where a gold disk hung. “And this is the sun.”