Magnolia Clubhouse members, staff and board members waited in the brightly lit dining room Tuesday afternoon for Mayor Justin Bibb to arrive, talking in small groups sitting around several round tables, each adorned with a sunflower at the center, as the anticipation for his arrival grew.
Vance McKissack sat toward the back of the room, near the cafe entrance. He leaned back on his chair, arms crossed, a black apron covering his gray t-shirt and black pants.
Once Bibb arrived, a few members in the dining room told him about how they had learned about the clubhouse, how it has helped them when they were feeling isolated, and how grateful they were to him for visiting. Then, McKissack decided to share with Bibb.
He’s worked in the kitchen and now works at the cafe, he told the mayor. And he enjoys going to Magnolia to spend time with people and socialize.
Magnolia Clubhouse follows a model started in New York City in 1948. The model allows people living with mental illness to work alongside staff at the clubhouse while also giving them access to resources for finding a job or earning a GED, college diploma or certificate.
Established in 2004, Magnolia Clubhouse is in two converted historic homes with a patio between them. Behind the facility on Magnolia Drive in University Circle, a one-story guest-house-turned-clinic that is open three days a week provides basic psychiatric services and primary care.
Challenges of addressing mental illness
In the dining room on Tuesday, Bibb and McKissack’s conversation turned to food.
“What’s your favorite dish to make?” Bibb asked McKissack.
“Mexican food,” he said.
“I like a great quesadilla,” the mayor said. “I might come back and have lunch with you.”
McKissack has been going to Magnolia about five days a week for the last four months. He first heard about the clubhouse after seeing a story about it on TV, he said. He enjoys going to social events at the clubhouse, like movie nights or holiday dance parties, McKissack told Signal Cleveland.
“It’s a good place to be around people,” he said. “We tell stories … share experiences.”
Bibb said he was excited when he got the invitation to visit Magnolia Clubhouse.
He said he recognized the challenges of addressing mental illness even before becoming mayor.
“Now that I’m mayor, I see how it intersects with everything from poverty to homelessness to violent crime in our city,” Bibb said. He added that mayors need more support from state and federal government to address the issue at a local level.
Throughout conversations with clubhouse members, the mayor asked whether the organization gets federal or state funding.
Funding comes from Medicaid and from Cuyahoga County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board, Lori D’Angelo, executive director of the clubhouse, told Bibb.
A partnership proposal with City of Cleveland
D’Angelo led the mayor and his staff up a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor – a career center of sorts. There’s tutoring and help with creating resumes, mock interviews, finding jobs and enrolling in school or a GED program. Another group of about 20 people waited for the mayor there.
One member, in patterned black and white leggings and a white t-shirt with black and gray splotches, pointed to a board behind Bibb, which lists employers that partner with Magnolia to provide jobs for clubhouse members. Bibb turned around and started reading the long list, leaning in to look closer.
“Is the City of Cleveland a partner yet?” Bibb asked.
“No, would you do that?” D’Angelo said.
“Let’s do it!” the mayor said, drawing applause. “We’ve got a lot of vacancies at City Hall.”
Bibb said becoming a jobs partner was “low-hanging fruit” – an easy way to support Magnolia’s work in the community.
A place where people are treated with dignity
After climbing to the third-floor newsroom, Bibb agreed to do a quick interview in the clubhouse recording studio. Sitting in a brown leather chair next to clubhouse member Ron Robinson, Bibb shared his thoughts on Magnolia Clubhouse so far.
He said it’s important for people experiencing mental illness to have a welcoming place to go, a place where they are treated with dignity and can have hope.
“I went to law school and business school right down the street, and to my chagrin I had no idea this was right in our backyard, right in University Circle,” Bibb said. “And so, I’ve been so impressed with the amazing staff, all the members of the clubhouse and the amazing community you all have built here for decades.”
Bibb also talked about the importance of care response. Magnolia Clubhouse is one of several organizations advocating for a care response model in Cleveland – where teams that don’t include police respond to people experiencing mental health crises.
The mayor shared that his cousin was murdered about seven years ago, by a boyfriend who was suffering from schizophrenia.
“I recognize that having mental health professionals be that first response can go a long way to solving violent crime in our city,” he said. “But also can go a long way in making sure that people get the treatment that they need, they get the support that they need.”
An important resource for the community
D’Angelo agreed. She sees Magnolia Clubhouse as a unique resource.
Whether it’s a place people go to for long-term support after a crisis is addressed or a place people go to before a situation escalates to a level of crisis, the clubhouse plays an important role in supporting people who live with mental illness, D’Angelo said.
This peer-driven framework paired with psychiatric support reduces incarceration rates and hospitalization, studies have shown.
On a late Tuesday morning in May – a regular day without any special guests – the Magnolia Clubhouse cafe was crowded with people chatting, sipping on coffee and tea or eating snacks.
In front of the cafe, Tina Barton was one of two people sitting at the front desk greeting members and taking their $1 payment. Looking through wide-rimmed rainbow glasses, she said she enjoys the clubhouse because it makes her feel productive.
“I was a shut-in for a number of years. And I come here to get out of my house,” she said, adding that she feels useful volunteering at the front desk.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful environment,” she said. “You can socialize. You can work in the dining room. You can work in the kitchen. You can work in the cafe. You can take my job.”
In the large kitchen next to the front desk and cafe, on the north end of the house, staff and clubhouse members prepared ground beef and chopped vegetables for taco salad. The scent of the seasoned beef threatened to push out the coffee smell.
Socializing at the clubhouse helps members
John Salmon worked alongside a college student – an intern from the University of Cincinnati.
Salmon is from Jamaica but lived in many places before landing in Cleveland. He moved to Toronto after high school, then Quebec, then Connecticut, where he got a master’s degree in engineering management.
Two years ago, he was hospitalized at Cleveland Clinic. A hospital social worker asked how he was feeling on a scale of one to 10. His response – “Five.”
The social worker suggested he visit Magnolia Clubhouse.
After he had been going to the clubhouse for six months, someone at a morning meeting asked him how he feels now.
“I said, ‘On a scale of one to 10, I’m a 10’,” he said, a wide smile forming.
“I’m enjoying myself. I’m meeting a lot of new people.”