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If you build it, they will come

May 1, 2009
by Lynn Huelsmann
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Creating a new clubhouse was an inclusive process

West end place is a 50,000-square-foot facility that has three levels. the street level (pictured) is where members and staff work together operating the reception area; the upscale resale store, the clubhouse shop; and mda, member deposit accounts, which is where members and staff can conduct their banking
West End Place is a 50,000-square-foot facility that has three levels. The street level (pictured) is where members and staff work together operating the reception area; the upscale resale store, The Clubhouse Shop; and MDA, member deposit accounts, which is where members and staff can conduct their banking. Photographer: Deirdre Higginbotham

“If you build it, he will come.”

This line from Field of Dreams certainly has proven true for Independence Center, a distinguished clubhouse-model mental health program in St. Louis experiencing unprecedented program growth since occupying its new West End Place clubhouse about two years ago. Already the second-largest clubhouse in the world (according to the International Center for Clubhouse Development), Independence Center's average daily attendance jumped almost 35% to more than 245 members since its August 2007 relocation. The Center now serves more than 1,000 individuals annually, providing a full array of supports to severely mentally ill adults (including education, employment, housing, wellness, and community living services).

The agency previously had two clubhouse centers approximately seven miles apart. Both were in facilities originally built for other uses. The buildings, furnishings, and equipment were in varied states of repair, a reality reflected in maintenance and utility costs. Spaces were oddly divided for their functions, decreasing efficiency and negatively impacting member-staff relationships.

After much analysis and discussion, a consensus emerged that the programs should be brought together in one clubhouse, and Independence Center's 2002 strategic plan declared this a priority. Turning that vision into reality took more than four years, but Independence Center Executive Director Mike Keller says that time proved well worthwhile.

“Contractors have an axiom: ‘Measure twice, cut once,’” he explains. “Taking the time to collectively imagine how you want to be in a new space is key not only to the most thoughtful design, but also helps create excitement about what's coming. The chance to do this probably comes only once in a lifetime, and it takes a while to start thinking outside the constraints of what you've known.”

After looking at dozens of properties, a 50,000-square-foot building in an ideal location was identified, but it required a complete renovation that took nine months. Originally a factory, the building had abundant natural light and a contemporary loft-like feel. Staff and members decided early on to keep spaces as open as possible to ensure program flexibility. Technology was made a priority and incorporated into every area (Newly diagnosed young consumers expect that technology will be available). West End Place has computer modules throughout, including in clerical, member banking, and education areas. Wi-Fi and interactive whiteboards are available in meeting and training spaces.

Other features of West End Place include:

  • Full commercial kitchen serving a 150-seat dining room, which has an adjoining snack bar and outside dining deck

  • Expansive resale shop with loading dock and processing area

  • Wellness center with machines and free weight stations; a studio for yoga, African dance, and aerobics classes; and locker rooms with showers

  • Video production lab where staff and members can develop training materials and create electronic communications about activities

  • Print and copy center mirroring a retail chain's store

  • Flower shop and greenhouse

Clubhouse philosophy demands members' involvement in all decision making, so input was garnered from 11 task forces, including housing, transportation, safety and security, technology, telephone and reception, parking, and design and furniture, among others. Each task force included staff and members and, in some cases, board members.

West end place's 150-seat dining room has an industrial/contemporary look
West End Place's 150-seat dining room has an industrial/contemporary look.
Such broadly based planning not only involved a lot of people but also emotionally invested them in West End Place. Although the task forces didn't solve every problem, “They did help us foresee most of them,” Keller recalls, “and created a core group of cheerleaders for change.
The wellness center's exercise area is illuminated by artificial and natural light
The wellness center's exercise area is illuminated by artificial and natural light.

“The building itself has a palpable energy, and visitors instantly comprehend that this program is all about getting our mentally ill members back into contemporary work settings,” he continues. “We have an outstanding track record at supported employment, and this building gives us a whole new platform from which to solicit transitional, supported, and independent job opportunities for our members.”

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