In the living room of Polaris House, a center for Juneau residents with mental illnesses to gather and volunteer, people talk, comfort each other and share their stories.
Over the years, many of them have fought long, hard battles with their disorders. Alcoholism and drug abuse are frequent problems. Several of Polaris House's clients have served prison terms, and others have seen their families fall apart.
At Polaris House, they come voluntarily to seek support and to support others. Each person is invited to be client and volunteer, said coordinator Diana Runde. Whether they're making lunch - served once a day to all who are interested - or helping a new visitor feel welcome, volunteering allows clients to help themselves.
"I come here to help others because that gets me out of myself," said Vickie Rosenstein, a client and member of the Polaris House board. "Much of the work is being there for each other - talking, counseling. It's hard enough sobering up. This keeps me in perspective."
"My boyfriend loves it because I'm happy," added client and volunteer Sky Cammack. "I'm a totally different person than what I'd gotten to be. ... It's a support group for me. I'm used to having lots of people around and now I do."
Polaris House opened in January, operating out of a small meeting room with no running water or bathroom. In March, it moved to a much larger building in the Gastineau Human Services complex at 5584 Aisek St., Suite 1, in Lemon Creek.
During its seven months of operation, the nonprofit group has had more than 70 individuals pass through its doors, said Susan Phipps, a founding member.
Some come seeking job training, including skills such as typing and Web page and resume development. Others choose to help tend the greenhouse and garden, relax and watch movies, or speak to someone with a friendly ear.
"Our primary function right now is providing peer counseling and support to stay in recovery," said Runde. "The one thing I think we do that our people can't is give that kind of support, and that's what we do all day, every day. Helping people with interpersonal relationships, helping people sustain their recovery."
Terry Flinders, who Runde dubbed her "primary, numero uno volunteer," said Polaris House has worked for him where nothing else did.
Dually diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Flinders also suffers from a sleep disorder. In the course of his life, he has struggled with alcoholism and has spent time in prison.
"Polaris House has become my life," he said. "It's the biggest support I've had since I've become sober and I will not give up a support group, especially this rich a support group. And I'm not talking about money, I'm talking about knowledge, support, hugs."
Like many other Polaris House clients, Flinders works with the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc. The two organizations frequently are in contact, with JAMHI often referring clients to Polaris House as an additional resource.
JAMHI also operates a drop-in center of its own, said Pat Murphy, clinical director. Located across the street from the Baranof Hotel, the Green House also provides an essential community for people with mental illnesses.
"The drop-in centers are very, very important," Murphy said. "It's nice to give people meds, it's nice to have case managers, it's nice to provide them housing and all that, but ... all of us need a social life. All of us need to feel that we're wanted, to have friends and feel like we're part of something. The clubhouses are a very important part of doing that."
Plans for Polaris House began in early 2001, when the National Alliance for Mental Illness Juneau applied for a grant from the state Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. It received $54,000, which allows for one paid staff position to help meet clients' needs.
Polaris House remains incorporated with NAMI, and should receive its own nonprofit status within the next few months, Runde said.
Polaris is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Its hours are constantly expanding, Runde said. Recently, a Friday night movie has been added, with people gathering from 6:30 to 10 p.m.
The work can be a struggle, Runde said. At any given time, up to one-third of Polaris House's regulars can be away, dealing with their illness.
"We never know which of us might go out," she said. "These are chronic illnesses and they're not going to go away. ... Every single person here has walked through hell and survived."
Polaris House can be reached at 780-6775.
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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