All I Really Need to Know About Social Work I Learned in Clubhouse

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natalie-tOne of my first jobs in human services was at a Clubhouse, a local community center that provides individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness with opportunities to build meaningful relationships that support them in obtaining employment, education and housing. Though I was not yet a social worker, all I really need to know about social work and how to effectively serve vulnerable individuals I learned in Clubhouse.

In a social service world fixated on quantitative data, outcome measurement and the bottom line, we often lose sight of the single most significant factor in recovery and wellness: human connection. At their core, Clubhouses are built on meaningful relationships between people who work together to cultivate opportunities for curative work, earnest engagement and personal growth.

The Clubhouse model lends itself to qualitative, anecdotal and uplifting narratives of success that are impossible to enumerate, much like the tales of triumph told by any social worker or human service professional who strives to empower marginalized populations.

The concept of Clubhouse started in 1948 on the steps of the New York City Public Library when deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients gathered, not for treatment, but simply to be supported by other individuals also living with mental illness. These informal meetings swiftly led to the establishment of the world’s first Clubhouse — Fountain House. Today, Fountain House continues to thrive and has paved the way for hundreds of accredited and not-for-profit Clubhouses around the world.

The psychosocial rehabilitative environment of Clubhouses breed confidence, hope and opportunity by allowing for choice and encouraging individuals’ participation in its daily operations. Regardless of setting, social workers must always strive to generate hope, even when it seems lost. We must also always offer choice to the people we serve. Choice is a concept often absent among vulnerable populations, particularly among youth who have faced abuse, neglect, chaos, separation and loss.

[Related: So You Think You Want to Be a Social Worker]

Clubhouses refer to the people it serves as members to foster shared ownership and responsibility. Social workers must empower people to share in the ownership of their own unique journey. The Clubhouse concept of membership also promotes inclusion for people who are stigmatized and often isolated. Social workers must always understand that individuals do not grow in silos, that everyone desires to feel supported and worthy, and that all people deserve a community.

Clubhouses are strategically structured to facilitate healing human interaction through the development of meaningful relationships. As social workers and youth development professionals, it is important to recognize that the modest endeavor of interaction has the potential to be more therapeutic than therapy itself. A social worker’s most important skill will always be the ability to build rapport, to comfortably engage with diverse personalities, to be genuine in the development of authentic connection.

Clubhouses function around the completion of restorative work-based tasks. If a Clubhouse member cannot or chooses not to complete a task that he or she volunteered for, it is that member’s responsibility to enlist assistance to complete the job. We, too, must set expectations for ourselves that are realistic and achievable through specific responsibilities. Social workers must also be willing to admit when they are drowning and ask for relief when needed.

Clubhouses are purposefully understaffed to drive a need for members to engage in meaningful work and to attempt unfamiliar tasks. Clubhouse members are encouraged to explore new responsibilities but are never coerced. We also must stay in continuous motion, immersing ourselves in new learning. We must always meet clients where they are and never pressure change or expect that transformation can be forced.

A Clubhouse community collaboratively decides how to prioritize, organize and complete tasks that best support the overall program. We too must accept that there are unlimited paths leading to similar destinations. We must let go of convictions about the best or most efficient way to arrive somewhere, simply for the sake of solidarity and inclusion. We must stay unassuming and open while attempting to prioritize clients’ needs.

Working in the Clubhouse was my first exposure to the concepts I would later realize are the precise essence of social work, though I also acquired useful wisdom later in my career. I have learned a person experiencing homelessness may not want to give up their pets, even if their pets are parrots. I learned that a suitcase of Teletubbies can be someone’s most prized possession. I learned not to keep glass on my desk because an angry man with meth carousing in his veins may shatter it. I learned how to help people during seizures and overdoses. Although fascinating, that acumen was hardly crucial because all I really needed to know about social work I learned in Clubhouse.

Natalie Tuffield is a licensed social worker in Denver, with nearly a decade of experience in community mental health and homeless services. She also writes a blog, “Mostly Tragic Tales of Dating, Living & Working in the Mile High City.”

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