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Promoting volunteerism

June 8, 2009
by Terry L. Stawar, EdD
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A CMHC helps its clients become more active community members

An entire wall in one of the activity rooms at the community mental health center (CMHC) in Jeffersonville, Indiana, is covered with certificates of appreciation from nonprofit organizations thanking members of the LifeSpring Partial Hospitalization Volunteer Club for their contributions to the community.

Delight Voignier, LCSW, clinical manager of LifeSpring’s Partial Hospitalization Program, had thought about introducing community volunteer projects in her program for some time. She once visited a program where the clients were just sewing tags on dolls to be given to needy children in a hospital. The image haunted her. So on December 12, 2006, she started the LifeSpring Volunteer Club.

The club’s first project was for the local United Way. The new volunteer club members prepared donation solicitation packets that the United Way then distributed to local businesses, to give to their newly hired employees during orientation. More than 5,000 packets were prepared.

In this photo and the one at the top, volunteers make blankets for the Red Cross. Photographer: Steve Shetter

The program’s positive effects immediately were obvious to everyone. “The volunteer club is a wonderful program,” says LifeSpring psychiatrist Leah Dickerson, MD. “It has really helped our patients feel more involved in the community.”

“It makes me feel good that I belong to something,” explains one volunteer club participant.

After volunteering for the United Way, another client said that she finds hope by building her self-esteem. She also talked about moving into her own apartment and getting a job, saying, “There’s no limit to what we can do.”

In the past such efforts have been called “community reintegration” and “normalization,” but in any case participating means becoming an active community member. Voignier’s volunteer club fits in seamlessly with the recovery model that LifeSpring has implemented. The club is a perfect vehicle for achieving recovery goals such as developing a sense of self, supportive relationships, empowerment, social inclusion, and more. After all, being part of the community means assuming civic responsibilities, as well as benefiting from community support.

Since the volunteer club’s inception nearly 100 clients have benefited. It currently has 38 members, and the majority have had serious and persistent mental illness. In the beginning, case managers facilitated the group, but over time natural leaders emerged. Now the club largely is self-directed. Projects are chosen as members contact other nonprofits to determine their needs and whether it is feasible for the club to undertake the project (See sidebar).

The volunteer club focuses on developing work and activities-of-daily-living skills that mesh with LifeSpring’s supportive-employment program. The club promotes the ability to work with others and employable skills, as well as helps clients assume a meaningful community role that enhances self-esteem.

The volunteer club also offers clients who choose not to enter the workforce immediately meaningful activities in a nurturing environment. Through volunteering clients learn about available local resources, as well as ways that they can become more connected with their community.

And club members have the opportunity to participate in “behind-the-scenes” activities that directly benefit other people. Many clients are acutely aware that they often are seen as being recipients of help, so the volunteer club is a way for them to be seen as contributors, as well.

“Anytime people give back to others, it empowers them and makes them feel good about themselves, and the volunteer club does that,” says Donna Greenhill, LCSW, a LifeSpring outpatient therapist. “It is one of those things we do that makes the community know we are here and connects us to the community and helps to reduce stigma. It is a win-win situation.”

Clients regularly receive acknowledgement for their efforts through volunteer recognition activities, which can further help boost their self-esteem. In short, the volunteer club assists clients in becoming a part of the community, instead of apart from the community.

“Not only does it provide valuable services in our community, it gives our clients purpose and elevates self-esteem,” says Jackie Madden, LifeSpring’s program supervisor of residential programs. “The pride and sense of accomplishment are in the smiles you see when they are asked about it.”

Terry L. Stawar, EdD, is President and CEO of LifeSpring in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He and his wife Diane have written a series of books on parenting skills for offenders for the American Correctional Association. Dr. Stawar writes a weekly newspaper column in Southern Indiana and is a blogger for Behavioral Healthcare.

The LifeSpring Volunteer Club in ActionBelow are some of the community partnerships and projects that the LifeSpring Volunteer Club has participated in since its inception.