For some people, retirement means golf shorts and grandkids. Not for Clarice Gallegos.
The 70-year-old is the co-founder and director of Focus Clubhouse, a membership organization offering support to people struggling with mental health issues. Based out of a tree-shaded cottage near the University of Louisiana’s Lafayette campus, the clubhouse is the only one of its kind in the state, and it recently received a significant financial boost that will insure its survival — at least for now.
Earlier this month, the Lafayette City Council approved $50,000 in funding for the nonprofit, which Gallegos hopes to put to various uses, from paying for training to achieve official accreditation from the clubhouse parent organization, Clubhouse International, to investing in a new location that can offer more services to members.
The funding was drawn from $86 million in coronavirus relief funds the federal government awarded to Lafayette as part of the American Rescue Plan. Very little of Lafayette’s allocation has been used on health or social service programs. The funding for the clubhouse was drawn from a $1.5 million package originally allocated for sidewalks in Downtown Lafayette.
The money, Gallegos said, came just in time. She and her husband had been making many of the renovations to the clubhouse’s current location themselves and on their own dime, she said. “My dimes are gone.” she added.
Meanwhile, the organization has grown, Gallegos said, especially since it moved to a more visible location on Johnston Street.
On a Monday afternoon, she fielded requests from potential new members.
“It sounds like this would be a good fit for you,” she told one woman over the phone, a referral from a former board member. Shortly after, a young man walked in, looking for mentorship and support after going through a divorce and adjusting to life on his own.
“This never used to happen,” Gallegos said of the walk-in prospect who just left the room. But now located on a well-traveled street with a big sign out front, she said more people are becoming aware of the clubhouse and its services.
Gallegos, whose son Brian suffers from mental illness and brought the clubhouse concept to her attention after seeing his life changed by becoming a member of a clubhouse in Miami, Fla., years ago, runs the house with a motherly sternness.
“It ain’t all peaches and cream around here,” she said. But seeing the positive impact the clubhouse approach made in her son’s life, she’s determined to keep going.
Unlike traditional outpatient facilities for those suffering from mental health issues, the clubhouse doesn’t have medical staff, and it doesn’t provide medication or offer therapy. Instead, it offers a support system and a structure that helps members navigate daily life and overcome some of the challenges mental illness can impose on it.
“It gives us a place to come when we have nowhere else to go,” said Katie Fletcher, a member of the clubhouse since October of last year.
A former teacher, Fletcher struggles with anxiety, which sometimes makes it difficult for her to complete ordinary tasks such as making phone calls or keeping appointments. At the clubhouse, the 54-year-old said, she’s surrounded by people who understand what she’s going through and who offer their support without judgment, such as going to important appointments with her.
“Here, we can be ourselves,” Fletcher said. “And if it’s a little crazy, that’s OK.” Keeping her appointments, something other members help her with, means staying on top of her medications, an integral part of helping her manage her symptoms.
The unusual nature of the clubhouse concept within the landscape of behavioral health services isn’t without its challenges, however. While members say they’ve seen great benefits from participating, finding funding to keep the organization running has been difficult.
“‘It does serve a purpose and there are people who receive great benefits from it,” said Brad Farmer, executive director of the Acadiana Area Human Services District, which provides some funding to the organization on a per-member basis.
But, he points out, because the organization’s offerings don’t fit neatly into the reimbursement structures that usually fund behavioral health services — reimbursements from insurance companies or programs like Medicaid for specific services rendered to patients — finding consistent funding sources will be a struggle, Farmer predicted.
“You have to be able to pay your bills,” he said. “No margin, no mission.”
Gallegos’ determination, however, seems a match for the challenge. After reaching out to each City Council member’s office, calling the mayor-president numerous times, and attending several council meetings, she secured the $50,000 she needed to keep the organization going just a little bit longer.
“That’s gonna go quickly, but we can at least take a deep breath or two,” said Dawn Koch, a member who helps with administrative tasks and helps other members develop coping skills.
Koch, who lives with bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD, said the clubhouse has saved her life more than once.
“When I saw it working for me and others, I was all in,” said Koch, who joined the clubhouse right after its inception at the beginning of 2020. “It bridges the gap between the hospital and the community,” she said.
And Gallegos has big dreams for the clubhouse. One day, she hopes there will be clubhouses in every major city in the state. For now, she’s planning to build a new facility on two pieces of adjudicated property she purchased in town, a development that she hopes will include at least four studio apartments to house members. Housing being one of their biggest needs.
And then there’s retirement. At 70 years old, Gallegos hopes to be able to take a step back from running the organization once her husband retires from working offshore. The two are planning to travel the country in an RV together.
“He’s done told me: That RV is going down the highway, with or without you,” Gallegos said, laughing. And while she’s not ready to take her hands off the steering wheel at the clubhouse just yet, Gallegos said when that day comes, she’s ready to hit the road with him.