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Hero House rebuilding lives for the mentally ill

Stan Donogh III, with Executive Director of Hero House, Erica Horn, in the kitchen at Hero House. - Linda Ball, Reporter Newspapers
Stan Donogh III, with Executive Director of Hero House, Erica Horn, in the kitchen at Hero House.
— image credit: Linda Ball, Reporter Newspapers

Long gone are the days of locking up the mentally ill and giving them pills. But there is still a stigma attached to those who suffer from mental illness.

At Hero House in Bellevue, a clubhouse for the mentally ill, things are very different. The space – almost 5,000 square feet – does not feel clinical. Executive director Erica Horn knows all her members and what each is dealing with. With a staff of five, Horn included, and a limited budget, the staff and members work side-by-side on every aspect of operation at the clubhouse.

Hero House (Hope, Empowerment, Relationships and Opportunities) was started in 2005 as a program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In 2009 Hero House became its own nonprofit organization.

Part of the philosophy at Hero House is its Seven Life Domains of Recovery: recreation and fitness, financial health, a member's living situation, cultural and spiritual issues, family and friends, work and/or education and health/mental health.

The philosophy at Hero House is to empower members to work side-by-side on all tasks at the clubhouse. There is a task board outlining various duties to be accomplished. There are members who are cleared to drive the 15-person van they use for outings. Members can check out the van for moving or tasks such as picking up a member upon hospital release. One member even co-signs on the checking account.

Horn said they are trying to break the cycle of slipping back into the abyss.

"If they're actively participating in a clubhouse, the rate of incarceration and hospitalization decreases," Horn said, adding that they've let people in who are using illegal drugs, but they will not tolerate anyone who is threat to others or is violent.

Hero House also works to get members into transitional employment, a way for members to return to work in a community-based business or industry. Most are entry-level jobs.

They help people with soft skills such as how to deal with paranoia in the workplace.

In what is called the hospitality unit, basically a big dining room, they have hot lunch every day. If the food is donated, lunch is free, otherwise it's $2. Twice a week Hero House gets bread from Panera Bread and PCC brings lunch food. Farms For Life donates fresh produce and the tables and chairs are new to them, recently donated by a law firm.

There are weekly socials at the clubhouse, and for Christmas, Argosy Cruises gave Hero House a 50 percent discount for members to take part in a Christmas Lights Cruise. Hero House is picking up half of the remaining cost so members end up paying $3.

There are laundry facilities for homeless members, and wellness programs including healthy cooking classes.

"One member taught them how to make sweet potato pie with low-fat and low-sugar – on a budget," Horn said.

Many of the members are very artistic, too. A group of artists in Hero House called "Artists on the Edge," had a showing at a gallery in Everett.

Hero House's big fundraiser every year is the Harvest luncheon in November. This year the goal was $75,000 and they fell short at $42,000. The kitchen needs a commercial stove. The need is always there.

"We're humble, but successful," Horn said. "We can compete with some of the larger organizations. We're honest. We've earned the trust of the county. We've always done what we said we were going to."

Horn said when funding for nonprofits was cut by the Legislature last year, the county helped by providing Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) money. She hopes Hero House will fare well during The Seattle Foundation's Give Big Day in 2013.

Meanwhile, they continue with outreach and keeping tabs on members who haven't been around in a while.

"It's their link. If they're depressed, it can be their invitation back to the living," Horn said.

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