Friendship House grew from basement to ocean view

When the Friendship House program was started in August 1988, in the basement of the Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital, it was the first of its type in the state.

Twenty years later, there are nine other clubhouses based on this original concept spread throughout the state.

This alone is reason to celebrate, but for the staff and members of Friendship House, it was a time to remember the past and enjoy each other’s company while the Friendship House Band, the “Friendlies,” played and entertained last week.

“The 20th Anniversary celebration of Friendship House was a fun and sentimental event,” said Dave Jordan, one of the Friendship House staff members. “It was a celebration of this beautiful idea, the Clubhouse Model, and how our members and staff work side-by-side to cope, succeed, live and thrive in our Kaua‘i community regardless of the frustrating and sometimes devastating barriers put in front of us by mental illness.”

Iris Ijima was one of the original staff members when the Clubhouse Model was started and remembers an incident at a ropes course when she was stuck high in a tree with no courage to step off the platform.

“The one thing that gave me the courage to step off into thin air was Charlie Song holding on to my safety line and softly saying, ‘It’s okay, Iris. I got you. You’re safe.’ It’s relationships like this one between our members and staff that make Friendship House such an effective and healing place,” Ijima said.

According to the Friendship House Web site, it is a Clubhouse Model psychiatric rehabilitation program for people who have experienced a severe or enduring mental illness.

Friendship House is a voluntary program where each member’s strengths and talents are emphasized rather than their mental illness, symptoms, or psychiatric history, the Web site states.

Everyone is wanted and valued at the clubhouse and Friendship House relies on its members’ talents, skills and abilities in order to function.

The “Friendlies,” the Friendship House band, is a prime example of this, where the members and staff form a musical group which provided music and entertainment which spanned the anniversary celebration.

Keynote speakers at the celebration included: Wayne Law, systems administrator, adult mental health; Danny Pimental, a Friendship House member; Jack Yatsko, associate executive director of I.C.C.D.; and Katie Vercelli, program director for Friendship House.

“Friendship House is a place that has helped me with my illness and when I am feeling down, they are always there for me,” Pimental said. “From the beginning, at the old Friendship House, and to now, I continue to learn things. They have helped me gain confidence in myself and to realize that I should never give up.”

During its 20 years growth from the basement of the Mahelona Hospital, the program has weathered many changes and challenges, Jordan said in a press release.

Law, the former center manager for the Kaua‘i Community Mental Health Center, forged ahead with the staff and members as they relocated the program to “the little blue house on the beach in Kapa‘a.”

With Yatsko as the program director, plans for the current facility began, and in 1998, Friendship House celebrated the grand opening of its new facility where the program continues to grow overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Jordan said currently, approximately 45 percent of Friendship House’s active membership are presently employed in the community at various businesses.

“They (Friendship House) are definitely my family,” Pimental said. “I am able to participate in learning new skills, goal planning, social events as well, as they have given me the opportunity to travel. I am so proud that Friendship House gives members the chance to experience how it feels to be treated like everyone else.”

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