Story last updated at 3:55 p.m. Thursday, May 23, 2002

Nami center fills gap for mental health
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Joel Gay, Homer News
Jean Steele works at her computer in the Circle of Wings drop-in center.  
Jean Steele was apologetic about the cluttered state of Circle of Wings, the drop-in center she and others have created for Homer-area residents suffering from mental illness.

The center fills a basement storefront in Kachemak Center. A single room crowded with mismatched furniture, handmade jewelry displays, cluttered shelves and piles of overflowing boxes, it looks a little sad, maybe even schizophrenic.

Steele would like to see it fill out and spruce up a bit, but there simply isn't any money.

"I was depressed last summer so I didn't apply for any grants," she said.

The irony is not lost on her. Here is a woman who, like millions of Americans, suffers from mental illness, yet not only envisioned the need for a drop-in center but got it opened and has kept it functioning for more than a year.

"I get this real charge out of being able to help people," Steele said.

In Homer, people affected by schizophrenia, severe depression, personality disorders and other forms of mental illness have traditionally sought help at Community Mental Health Center. Steele herself is a client, as are most who use Circle of Wings, she said.

But Community Mental Health and its annex are closed on holidays and on weekends <> times of peak demand for troubled minds. Circle of Wings, a private nonprofit agency under the auspices of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, now fills the gap.

"This is a place where people who need help can find help," and Steele is often who they turn to, said Richard Smithson, a fellow "consumer" of mental illness services. "She's an advocate for everyone in this town with mental illness."

The Academy Award-winning film "A Beautiful Mind" gave movie-goers insight into one of the forms mental illness can take, and how valuable it is for the mentally ill to have a supportive community.

Based on a true story, economist John Nash went on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize after Princeton University gave him an office and allowed him to resume teaching, even as he continued to battle his mental illness with medication.

That same philosophy of providing support for the mentally ill spurred creation of Circle of Wings, Steele said.

"People stop in to talk, joke, cry <> everything. It's a support group," she said.

Just as important to many of its participants, however, is that the center is independent from state-funded agencies.

"Circle of Wings has been a place people can meet where there isn't professional staff looking over their shoulders, monitoring what they're doing," Steele said. "People would rather have a place to go where they have freedom of movement."

Or as Smithson said, "This is where nobody is looking over your shoulder, where WE operate it."

Circle of Wings has no official director. "Anyone who walks in is a part of it," Smithson said. "It leaves other people with their dignity intact."

Steele conceived of Circle of Wings about two years ago. "I remember having this empty feeling on weekends that there was no place to go," she said.

As an artist who has at times relied on her jewelry-making to buy medications, she knew the value of art in the healing process, so she applied for and received a grant from the Homer Foundation for art supplies. She got another grant from the Mental Health Trust Authority to provide meals on weekends and holidays.

She also talked Kachemak Center owner Ray Evarts into providing space for a reduced rate.

"We wouldn't be here if it weren't for him," Smithson said.

Since opening in December of 2000, Circle of Wings has offered a hodge-podge of programs, but mostly it's a place for people to drop in and hang out with their peers. It's open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to either 3 or 5 p.m. The coffee pot is always on.

Circle of Wings has a computer with Internet access, a fax machine and color printer, making it an office for many. Steele often steps in to help people who are too timid, too depressed or otherwise unable to take care of their own business. She might call the Disability Law Center for one person and a doctor for someone else.

Many Americans have some difficulty wading through IRS forms or transferring the title for a vehicle. Imagine what it's like for a person taking medication for schizophrenia or having a bout of severe depression.

"All this stuff is like mystery school," said a woman named Lily who wouldn't give her last name. "These bureaucracies bury information" and people can't wade through it, she said.

The center offers respite during holidays, which are the worst part of the year for people suffering severe depression, said Steele. On Christmas Eve, 14 people came over to eat. "We ordered a ham dinner from Eagle," she said.

Others like the center because it gets them out of their own homes, Steele added. "Sometimes people just come and sit <> they sit and work it out."

The office has a tattered couch with a faded teddy bear perched on one arm. There's a TV/VCR, a big boombox and a small library with titles such as "Growing Through Divorce" and "Maximizing Your Energy and Personal Productivity."

photo: news
  Photo by Joel Gay, Homer News
Richard Smithson brought his fishing rod-building machine to Circle of Wings as just one of many crafts available to people who visit the center.  
The center also has an old exercise bike and a light box <> "Just in case someone needs to use it," laughed Smithson.

Everything is mismatched <> tables and chairs, file drawers and desks <> and people donate things they think might be useful. Smithson brought in a lathe-like machine used for making fishing rods, and Steele's grants have purchased a small enameling kiln for jewelry. Anyone can come in and learn to make a rod or a set of earrings.

Lily said she wants to work with fabrics. "I want to build these vests, with a lot of little pockets," she said, but added, "Sometimes you need three days to sit before you start."

Steele and Smithson agree they could use more space. In fact, they'd love to see Circle of Wings grow from a drop-in center to what is known as a clubhouse, with crisis management and perhaps housing. They can envision extending services to the physically disabled, as well.

"If we had a house," added Lily, "just the business of rebuilding it would be a good thing."

Smithson continued the thought: "If we could organize the handicapped people in this town and have a retail space..."

Then Steele suggested that "an incubator is needed, a place to get started.

With a kitchen."

But that's the future, they all agreed. For now, the little storefront in Kachemak Center is home. Mat board and a cutter fill one table, and raffia and other craft supplies flow out of bags and off shelves.

"This little thing doesn't seem like much," Smithson said, waving his hand around the crowded craft center, "but when you've got a person stuck in a little room, if you can make something, it makes them feel like they've accomplished something."

Steele acknowledged the value that the drop-in center has given, not only to others suffering from mental illness but to herself.

"Opening Circle of Wings gave me purpose," she said. Like the economist in "A Beautiful Mind," Steele noted that "Everybody needs to find that niche that's going to be good for them and is going to empower them."

Mental illness is not like having Alzheimer's or diabetes. "You can get better again," she said. "Even mental illnesses such as dementia, you have a choice in how to live your life, and a lot of people don't know they have that choice."

However, she added, "It's important that people know that nobody has that choice but them. If they don't like a particular treatment, there is always some form of alternative."

For her work with Circle of Wings, as well as her efforts statewide, earlier this month Steele was given the Distinguished Service Award by the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill <> Alaska.

Pat Murphy, clinical director of the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, said he's thrilled to see Steele honored. He has worked with her on statewide issues, he said, and knows of her efforts in Homer.

"She's worked on a lot of things to make life better for a lot of people," he said.

It's all the more impressive considering that Steele herself is afflicted with mental illness, Murphy said.

"She took her illness and transformed it into something that empowers others," he said. "Things get better when you empower yourself. That's when things really start to improve, because you're not simply having things done to you because you have

a disability."