Cover Stories

Independence Center: Work Together

Independence Center understands the importance of community when navigating difficult circumstances. The nonprofit offers services and support to adults with severe and persistent mental illness using a clubhouse model. Each member is responsible for helping operate the organization’s main facility, handling a variety of tasks like preparing meals, giving tours and teaching classes. The model works to help people realize their capabilities, develop skills and find opportunities for social growth. When the pandemic hit this spring, Independence Center had to quickly pivot its operations to continue safely offering services and a supportive community for its members.

Business development manager Abigail Berger notes that isolation can be very difficult for people coping with mental illness, so finding opportunities for connection was one of Independence Center’s top priorities when social distancing became necessary. “Our programs are mostly in person, so we took a lot of steps to transition our services online,” she explains. “When a physical clubhouse wasn’t an option, we created a virtual one.” The nonprofit developed a password-protected portal on its website, private Facebook groups and regular Zoom meetings for members to join and use for socialization.

Making technology accessible was another hurdle the organization had to overcome. “We serve a population that often doesn’t have a phone, computer or internet access, so virtual services are not as convenient as simply walking into a building,” Berger says. “Fortunately, we were awarded a large technology grant that helped us pivot very quickly.” With the additional funding, Independence Center was able to provide devices to its members.

This summer, plans for physical reopening began, and the nonprofit is currently operating a hybrid model. Members who do not feel comfortable attending in-person meetings can continue using online services, and the organization’s psychiatrists and other health professionals are offering telehealth appointments and virtual counseling for individuals and groups. “We want to make sure everyone is safe and has access to what they need,” Berger says. “The silver lining is that the pandemic has forced us to innovate. We have added a line of virtual services we didn’t have previously. We can now connect with more people regardless of their ability to physically come to us.”

To make its services possible, the Independence Center hosts its annual Dancing with the St. Louis Stars fundraiser. Most years, local community leaders and professional dancers hit the stage to raise money for the nonprofit. This year’s event will be held virtually Jan. 23, 2021. It is themed Champion of Champions and will feature performances from previous years. “We had more than 20 people volunteer to participate again this year, and we are so grateful for the support,” Berger says. “The top four fundraisers will have their performances and interviews featured in the program.” The event is free to watch, but to make the most of the evening, guests can purchase party packs that include cocktails, appetizers and other goodies.

The event is even more important this year because Independence Center is seeing a higher demand for its services. “The current environment has exacerbated preexisting mental health concerns,” Berger says. “Social isolation increases anxiety, and the problem is only going to grow moving into winter. We’ve gone through a lot of reorganization this year, but when it comes to addressing the pandemic’s impact, we’ve just gotten started.”

Independence Center is a community-based rehabilitation program for adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses. Its annual Dancing with the St. Louis Stars fundraising event will be held virtually Jan. 23, 2021. Pictured on the cover: Kristin Johnson of Edward Jones performs with Antonio Douthit-Boyd of COCA at the 2019 event. For more information, call 314.880.5404 or visit dancingwiththestlouisstars.org.

Cover provided by Independence Center

Pictured at top: Independence Center member Lisa Rodgers and Michael Fitzgerald at Dancing with the St. Louis Stars 2019
Photo courtesy of Independence Center

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