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Spirit Center thrives on thin budget

Lily Marie can hardly believe Grass Valley’s drop-in empowerment center for the mentally ill is strong and growing after two years.

“It’s always on wing and a prayer,” to keep the nonprofit Spirit Center open for those who need it and the peer counselors who help them. The center located in a warm home might not exist if it wasn’t rented by Marie from a relative for a nominal fee.

Nevada County only gives the center about $6,000 a year and pays Marie’s salary as the center’s liaison to the Behavioral Health Department. She was thrilled when the center got its first $10,000 grant, which coupled with donations kept the doors open for another year.



Upcoming Prop. 63 Mental Health Services Act money could keep those doors open for more years and expand the center’s hours.

But the Spirit Center does not run on money alone. It runs on the resolve of the 25 or so volunteers and peer counselors who help the mentally ill get out of their stigmatized shells and back into society.




“You have to start slow with people who have mental illness,” said Marie, who started the center after running the county’s peer-to-peer counseling program for several years. “You have to give people a place to start.”

Some of those people were trembling or were too ill to even speak when they showed up for help, but that hasn’t stopped them. Marie said about 20 to 25 people come into the center every day, including volunteers, patients and peer counselors.

The peer counseling concept is similar to what Alcoholics Anonymous and drug treatment centers utilize, the people who have actually been badly afflicted themselves.

“They know we know and we can understand better,” said peer counselor Adama Wise.

“It’s been the most stable part of my life for a while now and it’s kept me grounded,” said fellow peer counselor Guy Kerr. “I can be who I am,” and not worry.

“Some people worry about them appearing to do professional services without a license,” said Bob Erickson, director of the county’s Behavioral Health Department. “We’re trying to help them not do that.”

“People can’t peer counsel unless they’re willing and able,” Marie said. “If they’re too symptomatic or agitated, we refer them back to Behavioral Health.”

The counselors “deal with nuts and bolts things,” Marie said, like getting a patient a job and a place to live. Marie said the center and Behavioral Health refer patients to each other based on needs.

“The county focuses on crisis resolution and short-term crisis-oriented treatment,” said Mary Lowe, the adult services program director for Behavioral Health and Marie’s boss. “Spirit Center is more about reaching your potential as a person, it’s more long-term.”

Lowe said the county can only afford to give its patients an average of about one-half hour of consultation every four to six weeks, which makes Spirit Center all the more important.

“It’s an essential and important part to the full continuum of help,” said Lael Walz, current president of the Nevada County chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “It just makes sense for adults to reach out and support each other.”

No cure-all

Walz said Spirit Center’s peer counseling is not a panacea for mental illness.

“For some people, it doesn’t work, one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “But my concern is that now people will think we have Spirit Center and we don’t need anything else. It’s just one part of the need.”

However, “We’re supportive of their growth,” Walz said. “I certainly hope the community is supportive of the commitment those individuals have undertaken so we can stop the stigma of mental illness.”

“Stomp Out Stigma,” is a presentation that Spirit Center gives to groups around the county. They encourage any group to call the center at 274-1431 to schedule a time for it.

“Stigma stops people from getting help,” Walz said. “The more people with psychiatric illness integrate into the community, the better we all get.”

One of those who almost let the stigma win was Valerie Lowe, who has been a peer counselor since last fall.

“When I heard about Spirit Center, I stayed away,” she said. “I didn’t want to be ‘one of them.’ A lot of people knew me as a performer and I didn’t want them to know I had an imbalance.

“The truth of the matter is I was looking for family and a place where I can accept myself and my imbalance and it’s OK,” Lowe said. “I know so many people on (psychiatric) meds who don’t want people to know, but I’m here to say it’s OK.”

Dolores Jordan brought her mentally ill son to Spirit Center and ended up volunteering and even dealing with her own depression once she got involved.

“What this place is about is hope and acceptance, it fills a gap,” Jordan said. “Some people new to the mental health community get their meds and then are told come back in a month,” by the county. In the interim, “They can come here and have a course toward improvement. I don’t think the community realizes how unique this center is.”

Spirit Center is the only one of its kind in northeastern California, but other counties are already asking for its manual on peer counseling.

“The Nevada County Spirit Center is way ahead of most counties throughout California, and nationally, in demonstrating the potential success of self-empowerment and recovery through peers helping peers,” said Rod Pence, former Nevada County NAMI president.

Joan Buffington is an enthusiastic Spirit Center volunteer, and has worked in the mental health field for many years.

“Spirit Center has filled in a huge hole in the mental health safety net of Nevada County,” Buffington said. “I still believe this is the future of mental health services.”

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To contact senior staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@the union.com or call 477-4237.

To learn more about Spirit Center and its programs, call 274-1431, or go by at 12276 Gates Place in Grass Valley above Lyon’s Restaurant from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

The center offers individual support groups, along with training and classes in peer counseling, grief support, employment counseling and media outreach.

The center is having a yard sale with live music from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 23-24. The annual Spirit Fest with many live music acts will be October 20 at the Miner’s Foundry in Nevada City.


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