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How everyone is coming together to save the Community Corner Clubhouse
Is mental health the issue both sides of the political aisle can agree on?
North Central Health Care last month announced it would close down the Community Corner Clubhouse, a community resource that somewhat defies easy explanation. The surface explanation is that it’s a place that provides a variety of services to people with mental health issues.
But that easy explanation belies what the clubhouse really seems to do, a function that’s not as easy to define. It’s a place for those people to gather, a place where people with mental health challenges can converge with others suffering similar problems.
Even reading that, it sounds pretty squishy. But all it takes is talking to a few folks who have benefited from the place, as I did in the last couple of weeks, to understand why it’s so important.
I’m not alone in that assessment. The Community Corner Clubhouse hosted a listening session with the county’s Health and Human Services committee on Tuesday. On Wednesday, pretty much every member of the committee, whether right-learning or left leaning, searched for a way to save the place.
NCHC started 2022 with a $2.1 million shortfall. As I reported earlier, it’s part of a trend of budgetary shortfalls going back to 2020 and COVID-19. In 2020 NCHC had a shortfall of $3.9 million.
Fueled by a new structure that gives the county (and Lincoln and Langlade) much more power over the quasi-governmental health care agency, and a new interim director who himself was a former county administrator, the organization is looking to make cuts. The plan, interim director Mort McBain told me, is to cut back to programs mandated by the state. The farther out from mandated it is, the more likely it is to be cut.
NCHC is designed to operate as a human services department for three counties — Marathon, Langlade and Lincoln. State laws mandates certain human services that need to be performed. Most counties have a single human services department to handle those state requirements, such as providing nursing home care for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. But in Marathon County, NCHC is in place to handle those requirements, and has expanded to perform other services useful to the county’s mission.
Agree or disagree, there is no state mandate that the county needs to provide a clubhouse for those with mental health issues.
The people who need Clubhouse
I spoke with Craig Lauber in a conference room at the Clubhouse. Lauber told me about his social anxiety, how it kept him at home for years. Other than once per month, he never left the house. Until clubhouse.
Even when he first started coming to the Clubhouse, he sat in a corner for about six months, not talking to anyone. Clubhouse members approaching him to shake hands in a friendly manner overwhelmed him.
He’s far from alone. Numerous people spoke about similar experiences, in how this place helped them. One woman, Kelly Kaufman, drives all the way from Embarrass to the clubhouse several times per week. It’s that important to her.
Another man I met outside the clubhouse just before the listening session. His brown RV, which he lived in, sat parked across the street. I shook his hand, and he smiled underneath his bucket hat before telling me about how the clubhouse helped him stay sober for ten years.
The clubhouse offers help with employment, job hunting, connecting to services, and plenty of other odds and ends. It’s not what anyone who will miss the place talks about. They talk about the sense of connection they feel, a bulwark against social isolation. That might sound squishy, but it’s for someone with mental health challenges is practically medicine.
Voices from both sides of the political aisle on the Health and Human Services committee spoke Wednesday about the clubhouse as something the county needed to find a way to save.
Bobby Niemeyer was one of the wave of right-wing candidates who swept into the county board in the April election. Niemeyer asked about possible fundraising options to support the clubhouse and keep it. “It sounds like it took a lot of courage for many of those people to even step out of the house to come to Clubhouse,” Niemeyer said Wednesday. “It’s a familiar place.” He seemed to grasp something NCHC administration didn’t - it’s not that simple to just shuffle them around to various other services.
Ron Covelli, also an April candidate included on Republican checklists, asked should the county find a way to fund clubhouse, would NCHC keep it? McBain said that they would.
But county staff pointed out that Clubhouse would have better fundraising options if it were to operate as a non-profit, something its current manager, Mike Frankel, is working on. So the two options to save it in whole is to fundraise as a non-profit or for the county to foot the bill.
And Stacey Morache, another right-leaning board member, asked about using ARPA (pandemic relief) funds to support the clubhouse. She pointed out that the county put millions of ARPA into NCHC’s campus renovations. “Change is hard for everyone, but for some people it’s much more difficult to go with the flow,” Morache says. She suggested the county could use ARPA funds to keep it going for a couple of years until other funding sources can be found.
County Administrator Lance Leonhard pointed out that it’s possible, but there are plenty of other requests for that limited pandemic relief funds. But based on the comments at the HHS meeting, it seems few would have the same level of support as keeping Clubhouse around.
More left-leaning members Michelle Van Krey and Alyson Leahy also lent their voices to finding solutions that keep Clubhouse around. In a time of political divide, Clubhouse seems to be a unifier.
Mental health matters
This week we were all shocked by the news that WAOW anchor Neena Pacholke took her own life. She was 27, seemed to be doing well in her career. Everyone who knew her described her as having a bright, bubbly personality. She also dealt with a lot of personal tragedy, according to other news reports.
It was a reminder that mental health is an issue we all need to be concerned about.
NCHC’s budget woes are very real. An organization can’t survive by spending in a deficit.
But the costs of not addressing mental health concerns could be far greater. McBain admitted that to me — cutting costs in the short term could lead to much longer-term costs in the future. It’s like saving money by not fixing your roof. Down the road, you’ll have much bigger and more expensive problems.
The Community Corner Clubhouse’s future is still uncertain. But it seems everyone agrees that it’s in the everyone’s best interest to solidify that future.
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