It was standing-room only in Royal Oak City Hall a dozen years ago when scores of residents caviled — in meeting after meeting — against plans by a nonprofit group to renovate a small office building that had overgrown landscaping outside and black mold on its interior walls.
City officials joined with more than 100 neighbors of the site in opposing the effort by Easter Seals to fix up the property as a day program for mental health patients. Residents said having the patients visit their mostly residential neighborhood was sure to hurt property values and could even threaten families' safety. City officials agreed and spent about $500,000 on lawyers to fight the plans in court.
In November 2005, after a federal lawsuit, residents caved, and Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison signed a letter promising to cooperate with Easter Seals Michigan began converting a former day care center and dental office into the nonprofit's Dreams Unlimited Clubhouse.
Tonight in Clarkston, Easter Seals Michigan will hold a “Cheers” gala to raise money for its programs, including its new LUNA program to address autism, said spokeswoman Peggy Goodwin.
Activities at the Dreams Unlimited Clubhouse on Catalpa are a vital part of members' outpatient therapy for overcoming mental illness, program manager Joyce Rupp said. There are nearly 50 similar programs around Michigan, but the Dream Unlimited Clubhouse in Royal Oak is one of only 10 in Michigan that is accredited by a national mental health organization, Rupp said.
"Our role is to be cheerleaders. We let the members really do all the work here," Rupp said.
Easter Seals didn't pick the site to pick a fight, Rupp added. Instead, it was the central location in south Oakland County — near bus lines on Woodward and near the bus station in downtown Royal Oak — along with a building that "had the open floor plan we needed," she said.
"Believe me, it wasn't just to aggravate the neighbors," she said.
Members said they continue to fight society's stigma about mental illness, and often their own feelings, before embracing the opportunities offered at the clubhouse, which include job training and placement. "I've only been coming here for three years because I thought, 'I don't want to go there — that says I'm mentally ill,' " said Dawn Fox, 55, of Ferndale. "But I'm over that and now I give speeches about it, and I say I live with a mental health condition," Fox said. Having the clubhouse available gets those receiving mental health treatment out of the isolation of home and into a supportive environment, she said.
"This keeps a lot of us out of the hospital, keeps us healthy and keeps us busy. You have people say, 'I was suicidal until I started coming here.' This is family to us. Some people don't have anywhere else to go," she said. Of special interest to Fox, she said, was the clubhouse library, where she recently took out a copy of Mitch Albom's book about a merciful Detroit pastor championing the homeless, called "Have a Little Faith."
"I think the message of the book was (to) be open to others because you don't know the other person's journey. Don't judge a person by the cover," she said.
To neighbors who might still be skeptical of the Dreams Unlimited Clubhouse and its users, member David Klemmer has his own message.
"I would like to say that a lot of us patronize the businesses around here," said Klemmer, 55, of Oak Park, whose hands shake slightly from the medicine he takes for depression. After joining the clubhouse rolls, Klemmer said he began going to the dentist located next door.
"When I called to make my first appointment, I said 'Hi, I'm one of the inmates from the asylum next door.' They laughed," he said with a mischievous grin.
Cuts in the state budget to mental health funding threaten services provided at sites like the Dreams Unlimited Clubhouse, said Easter Seals Michigan President and CEO Brent Wirth. Funding from the state's general fund to each county's community mental health organization has been cut over the past several years by state lawmakers, "in anticipation of savings from new programs, which do not seem to have materialized," Wirth said.
The new Healthy Michigan Program, which was designed to decrease the number of people with no health insurance, also attracted more enrollees than expected, leading to lower per-patient payouts by the program, Wirth said.
"We're going to have to sort this out, but right now we're very worried that we won't have as many people able to use the Clubhouse and other essential mental health care services as well" in 2016, he said.
"Cheers'' gala fund-raiser
When: 7-10 p.m. tonight
Where: Sellers Bowman Auto Center, 9603 Dixie Highway, Clarkston
Tickets: $75 available at the door. Includes $100 in "casino" money.