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'A Place to Belong' Support for those with mental illness

Walking through the door of 'A Place to Belong,' you hear a charming bell from the door.

Halloween decorations greet you, along with an electric fireplace and a table full of people just 'hanging out.'

Today, a handful of members are playing cards while one plays a hunting game on Wii.

If you didn't know what the 'place' was for, it'd be hard to guess.

"A Place to Belong is a social club for people with serious mental illness," said the club's executive director, Sue Wilken.

"Our mission statement is to provide a safe and supportive environment for people to work on their mental health through social, voluntary recreation opportunities," said Wilken.

A Place to Belong is located in the Graystone Building in downtown Detroit Lakes, and to be a member, you have to be 18 years old and clinically diagnosed with a mental illness

For member Cathy Slone, getting a clinical diagnoses was never an issue -- in fact, she's gotten a few.

"They've tagged me with a lot of different issues," said Slone, "I've been diagnosed bipolar, bouts of depression and when I was a kid they thought I had ADD."

Although Slone says she was once an athlete and hard worker from Chicago, life handed her one blow after another.

"I had a heart attack that brought me into a medical catastrophe, which then brought me into a financial catastrophe, which then brings you into an emotional catastrophe because now you don't feel like a worthwhile, contributing person."

The 52-year-old Slone says she came to Detroit Lakes a homeless person living out of her van with no money and a substance abuse problem.

"But I'm 10 years clean now," she said smiling. I would be lost without the place. It really is an anchor for me because I have no family here."

Slone has been coming to A Place to Belong for three and a half years, and says although she knows the conditions of her life likely won't improve, her attitude has.

"There are other people here who make you feel like you're not alone with your disability, whether it's the same as theirs or not," said Slone, "It helps you see that you're not the only person suffering and God didn't do this to me. I'm blessed every day."

Slone is just one story out of the many of that are told sitting around the table of A Place to Belong.

Membership there has grown to 193, with 61 of those being active members who attend functions regularly.

Crysta Torgerson and Nancy Schwartz head up activities at the facility.

"We'll play cards, different board games; people utilize the computers, pool table, two TV's a Wii system and we have dinner here twice a week," said Schwartz, who adds they will also go on little road trips around the area, including baseball games, pontoon rides and camping.

"They are really a family, and for some people here, it's the only family they have," said Schwartz, "They feel really good about coming here and knowing they're going to see the same people when they get here."

This is the healing concept behind A Place to Belong, as it is not a place for therapy or any kind of treatment -- just a place where people care.

"Isolation is one of the biggest struggles that people with mental illness face. If you don't have a circle of friends or a job, why get up in the morning?" said Wilken, adding that when a person doesn't have a place to go, it's more likely their mental illness will flare up.

"I come here to meet women," laughed member Joe Jasken, making everybody else laugh too. "Nah, I come here to just get out of the apartment and do something."

Jasken and the others agree another high point for them is the dinner that's served up twice a week.

The refrigerator is always full and there's always hot coffee made. Everybody just helps themselves.

All of this is free to the members, as the facility is funded through a government grant and community donations.

Last year Wilken says the Detroit Lakes location (there is also one in Fergus Falls) served 1,279 meals, and that doesn't include quite a few of the 'help yourself' meals.

The facility is open Monday through Saturday when it is run by three staff members.

If there are either community volunteers or members in 'good standing' who are willing to be there, it can also open up on holidays and Sundays as well.

The staff all agree that while the understanding of mental illness has improved over the years, it still has a long way to go.

"There's still a stigma with it," said Wilken, "When people don't know about it, it scares them, but there isn't a person out there who isn't somehow touched by mental illness."

Wilken says one in four people will at one time in their lives deal with some sort of mental illness.

"It is not a respecter of education level, cognitive function, economic situation ... we have members who have a very low cognitive function and we have engineers," said Wilken, "We have people who are very poor and people who are very wealthy, although most are below the poverty level."

The people at A Place to Belong are hoping the community will embrace them a little more as they prepare for an open house.

On Wednesday, Oct. 26 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., their doors will open to the public as a way to build community understanding.

"So if anyone wonders 'what in the world is a place to belong,' it's a good time to come on up to see us in action," said Wilken, who says they are also looking for volunteers, whether it be to 'hang out, play the piano for an hour or teach a skill or class.

For more information on a Place to Belong, call 218-846-9022 or visit them at 101 Graystone Plaza Suite 200 in Detroit Lakes.