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A 'light presence'
Woodley House services blend into community

(Published April 17, 2006)

By ASHANTAE JOHNSON
Staff Writer

Stressed out, deeply depressed, seeing and hearing things that don't exist, going on crazy shopping sprees before realizing you have no money - these are only a few symptoms of mental illnesses that affect many ordinary people, according to Mollie Kaiser, residential director of Woodley House.

Many people who are not suffering from mental illness can identify with momentary bouts of high stress or mild depression, perhaps one of the reasons that some residents of Woodley Park, Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park are unaware that one of the District's oldest organizations that offers community-based residential services has been operating in their neighborhoods for years.

Woodley House clients have a "light presence" within Northwest Washington neighborhoods, according to Kurt Vorndran, president of the Woodley Park Community Association.

"Ninety-five percent [of the community] is probably unaware that they are in the neighborhood," he said. "It's good to have social services in the neighborhood -- it's a wonderful program."

Vondran said that because people often have unkind views of those with physical and mental handicaps, the Woodley Park Community Association has vowed to not arouse those views.

Woodley House Executive Director Debra Young said the very ordinariness of people who come to the facility for help has helped it blend into the community.

"Initially, people were concerned about the organization, but now they realize that our consumers are just like anyone else. And we are very responsive to our patients," Young said.

She added that Woodley House is a good neighbor and that the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has even offered letters of support.

"Members of the community now call on us for advice on how to deal with their own tenants," she said with a chuckle.

Operating since 1958, Woodley House provides a continuum of community-based residential and behavioral health care services that cater to and meet the clinical and therapeutic needs of seriously and persistently mentally ill adults in the Washington metropolitan area.

Providing halfway houses and crisis intervention centers in Northwest Washington, the organization was the first on the East Coast to offer many of its services -- including the first halfway house, apartment program, crisis program, a consumer-run self-help center and advocacy program.

"We were the first to purchase condos -- we own six and lease them to our consumers," Young said.

Most of the organization's clients have been battling their illnesses for nearly 20 years, Woodley House staff members revealed. Most of the illnesses began while clients were in their early 20s. Staff members noted that drug use, high stress levels, and dysfunctional family or social environments all have lasting effects on a person's mental state and may contribute to development of mental illness.

"We serve as a familial structure for our residents," said Tenisha Evans, a Woodley House mental heath counselor. "We make sure they take their medicine, keep appointments and manage their money wisely. We teach social skills -- how to be more independent -- and they prepare dinner and do chores."

Evans said the atmosphere in the residential facilities is "like a family" - complete with what she called occasional "family fights."

"A big thing is cigarettes," she said. "They fight about that and 'borrow' one another's cigarettes."

Cookouts are among common social events. The staff said throwing big dinners to celebrate holidays are all a part of establishing relationships and providing a healthful atmosphere.

"We had Christmas dinner, and we'll have a cookout for Memorial Day. We all look forward to that," Evans said.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., residents participate in day programs. Programs include, but are not limited to, going to school, work and therapy sessions.

"We don't want them just sitting around the house," Evans said. "We are trying to help them transition into functional members of society."

The Valenti House -- the original halfway house - is a three-story townhouse on Connecticut Avenue that shelters clients as well as housing the organization's offices. The house doubles in function as a residential space that offers continued care, so that clients receive psychiatric treatment for up to six months. The Valenti House offers counseling support, as well as education and skills training. The support staff provides services to 20 residents, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Many of Woodley House's current clients don't have family support systems, so counselors work hard at building good relationships, Evans said.

"This is their home -- this is where they live," she stressed.

The Woodley House has plans to host a series of events in May to celebrate Mental Health Month. Residential Director Kaiser said that plans are being made to schedule an open house, as well as an in-house event which may feature a weekend movie related to mental health. An informational conference for clients is in the planning stages, as well.

Kaiser said that her satisfaction and fulfillment with her work runs deep.

"It's so rewarding -- [clients] go through so much, but they persevere with it," she said. "I love working with them. They are heroes."

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator