Grand Avenue Club
Press Release

Creating the “New Normal” for Mental Health Services in Milwaukee

The Grand Avenue Club (GAC) of Milwaukee has long fought against the abandonment, isolation and stigma of people with histories of serious mental illness. But the COVID19 epidemic has forced massive changes. Rising to the challenge, the GAC shows a path to the “new normal” for other Milwaukee nonprofits.

By - Jun 14th, 2020 10:59 pm

Milwaukee,  June 14, 2020   The Grand Avenue Club (GAC) helps people move beyond the shame and isolation caused by severe mental illness like schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder. Members of the GAC take up valued roles in the organization – they are not treated as patients or clients. They rediscover the dignity of work, at first as in-house volunteers and later for employers in the community. But on March 18, 2020, the GAC closed in-person operations. All of a sudden, members could not come downtown to meet their colleagues or join employment training programs. And closing down the economy threatened the jobs that people held in local corporations, restaurants and service agencies.

“The epidemic is a real challenge to us,” explains Dr. Rachel Forman, GAC founder and Executive Director. “First, we have to keep people safe. But the other challenge goes to the heart of our philosophy. We build face-to-face relationships with people who have spent years and sometimes decades in isolation or at the margins of society. Was the epidemic going to be demise of the Grand Avenue Club?”

Refusing that fate, the GAC staff first got to work helping members survive the “Safer at Home” policy. Dr. Forman and other social workers delivered food and household supplies to members in need. They started 7-days-per-week contact with members via phone, email and social media. They ramped up the Facebook page, which now sees hundreds of posts and comments every day with members sharing recipes, asking for advice and offering daily life survival tips to each other.

Nikki Lelinski, Program Coordinator, describes the unexpected benefits of moving to a hybrid format. “Members with cyber-skills have taken up important new roles in the GAC operation. People who could not come downtown, due to physical disabilities or work schedules, can now participate remotely and at any time.” Breaking down the divide between staff and members is a key part of the nationwide clubhouse model of rehabilitation, and now more than before, everyone is engaged in finding new work opportunities in a changed economy.

The survival of non-profit organizations is crucial for a more inclusive Milwaukee, according to Paul Brodwin, PhD, the incoming vice-president of the GAC Board of Directors. “It’s a tough time for non-profits that want to reduce the enduring disparities in our society,” he said recently. “But improvising and jumping into new digital media, while respecting the long-term mission, is necessary and doable for groups, like the GAC, dedicated to the flourishing of all Milwaukee residents without exception.”

For more information about the Grand Avenue Club (210 East Michigan Street, Milwaukee WI) or to take a tour, contact 414-276-6474 or admin@grandavenueclub.org.

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