The “legend” of Friendship House, Iris Ijima, retired on Dec. 30 following 33 years of being one of the best clubhouse workers in the world, said Debby Thompson of the Friendship Club board of directors.
“No one can ever compare to Iris,” Thompson said. “She lives and breathes the ‘Clubhouse Model,’ and we were all so lucky to have had her for as long as we did.”
Mayor Derek Kawakami joined the many friends, co-workers and Friendship House members and officials in proclaiming Dec. 30 as “Iris Ijima Day” in recognition of Ijima’s “dedicated service to Kaua‘i.” The proclamation wishes her well in her retirement.
“Due to COVID-19, we can’t have a big celebration,” Thompson said. “But all her friends, family and colleagues were invited to wish her well on several dates in December, the biggest one being on Dec. 30, her last day of work.”
Among those attending was Jack Yatsko, chief operating officer for Clubhouse International, who was one of the first three people on staff when Friendship House started.
“Iris had an impact on so many people, and improved the lives of members who were part of Friendship House,” Yatsko said. “Never a day went by that Iris’ smile, expertise or compassion did not have a positive effect on someone. And, she did it in addition to traveling from her home in ‘Ele‘ele to Kapa‘a every workday and many holidays for 33 years.”
Yatsko said Friendship House was initially a program called Serenity House and located on the grounds of the Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital.
“A group of people that included Mimi Snyder, Helen Martin, Verlie Aiu and Wayne Law helped to initiate the change from a more-traditional day-treatment program for adults with mental illness to the Clubhouse Model of Psychiatric Rehabilitation,” Yatsko said. “Martie Drinan was the original director, and Iris was the first generalist staff hired in August 1988. I was hired in early 1989, and Dave Jordan after that.”
Kawakami, in his proclamation, said, “Fast forward 33 years later, and Iris’ work is seen not only throughout our community but around the world as the Clubhouse of Psychiatric Rehabilitation continues to touch thousands of adults who have experienced a mental illness.”
Yatsko became the director of Friendship House that became part of the state Department of Health Kaua‘i Community Mental Health Center, working there for 13 years before being hired by Clubhouse International 20 years ago. Clubhouse International is the coordinating center for 325 clubhouses located in 32 countries.
“Iris worked at Friendship House for 33 years and was one of the most effective, compassionate, caring staff who emanated kindness, love and brilliance in her work,” Yatsko said.
“Due in part to the outcomes achieved by Friendship House in assisting adults with a mental illness to return to work, school, obtain independent house, hospital recidivism and more, the model was expanded by the Department of Health Adult Mental Health Division and now includes eight clubhouses across the state of Hawai‘i.”
Kawakami said Iris has helped bring awareness of the progress clubhouse members made by being involved with Friendship House.
“During her career, employment outcomes for people with mental illness were tripled compared to national averages, and more members were moving into their own apartments,” Kawakami said. “The Clubhouse model was proving to be a success, and these efforts have resulted in the DOH expanding to 10 Clubhouse programs, with much of that credit going to Iris’ work.”
Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.