Healing by Helping: The Main Place

The Halloween party that took place the day before had been a bigger hit. It probably had something to do with the fact that today’s forecast called for rain throughout the afternoon. I remember Scott, a client I had met yesterday, told me he wouldn’t be coming back the following afternoon for that very reason. Coffee and Canvases wasn’t enough of an incentive to walk in the rain.

“But I thought you loved painting?” I asked,

“Not enough to leave my apartment and get all wet,” He replied.

Coffee and Canvases is one of many activities that The Main Place, a mental health recovery center in Newark, Ohio, hosts. Painting usually brings in a larger crowd, I was told but when most of your clients are traveling by foot, the rain can be a big obstacle. 

Rhonda has been the director of The Main Place for twelve years, and it was art that brought her to The Main Place initially.

“So I’m sitting in a local social serve agency trying not to lose my house that I ultimately ended up losing, when I saw a pamphlet for The Main place and it said: ‘art class.’ And what did I go to college for? Art!”  

Rhonda is cheerful and warm. I can immediately tell how good she is at her job, too. She has a talent for making people feel important. I noticed how she would go around the room and speak to each client individually, asking them how they were, if they were having a good time, and “Did you get a chance to try the pumpkin cupcakes?”,etc. 

  Like any other doting grandmother, she shows us pictures of her grandchildren in their Halloween costumes. She’s got on festive, black and orange-striped tights and an orange t-shirt adorned with sequins. 

“Girls, my age is starting to show,” 

She says as she takes off her shoes, which are a very youthful pair of silver sneakers covered in glitter. I’d argue that Rhonda has the energy of any young person, if not more so. She told me how she was running on four hours of sleep and had been up since six in the morning. I had been up since eight, had seven hours of sleep, and somehow I was the one struggling to stay alert.

When interviewing her, I began in typical journalistic-fashion with “Why” and “How” questions. I wasn’t at all expecting the candidness of her answers. 

“I had run my from mental illness my whole life,” She began.  

I could tell she had told this story many times yet it didn’t feel rehearsed or stale. She was a natural storyteller.  

She talked about seeing her great-grandmother being put in a mental institution only to never come out. This made her afraid for over thirty years to seek clinical help. For her, it was a deep depression that cost her a job, a relationship, and, eventually, her house that was the push to seek help. For Scott, it was a stroke. 

Scott was the first client to approach me on the night of the Halloween party.

“You’re red!” I turned around, “No I’m not!”

“Yes you are!” He said matter-of-factly, “Your face AND your hands are red.”

“Well, my face is always read. Are you a witch?” I ask, attempting to change the subject of the conversation. I notice he’s got the Wiccan pentagram hanging around his neck and he’s wearing a hooded black robe. 

“Yep. Not wizard, not even a warlock.” 

When I ask him why he comes here, he says: “To get away from the cats.” He’s got two cats: Fidget and Spok. 

Surprise, spurprise: He’s a Star Trek fan. Since I know nothing of Star Trek, I ask him about the other TV shows he watches. He brings up some other shows from the sixties and seventies. I think to myself: Now this I can work with. I grew up watching reruns of M*A*S*H* and Hogan’s Heroes with my dad.   

“I used to think Hogan’s Heroes was a comedy. After being in the army, I realize now that it's really a documentary.”

Scott joined the army right out of high school so he could go to college for free. He was stationed in Ft. Benning, Georgia before being Deployed to Somalia at the age of nineteen. 

“Don’t thank me for my service,” He says, “That’s all post 9/11 stuff. It’s like, ‘Where were you in the nineties?’”

He reached out his arms, pretending to ring this imaginary person’s neck.  

The only other client I knew of that had served in the military was Peggy. Peggy didn’t have as much to say about it. She can speak German pretty well because she was stationed in Berlin for “about two or three years.” That’s all I know of her time in the service. 

Peggy brought her emotional support dog, Ginger, to Coffee and Canvases on Wednesday. Ginger was a fluffy, white and gold mutt that lay happily on the linoleum floor of the common area where everyone gathered. Everyone who saw Ginger acknowledged and pet her, and she reveled in the attention. She is clearly a people-lover, like her owner. Peggy’s had her for as long as she’s been coming to The Main Place-- which has only been for a few years. Yet, the confidence Peggy demonstrated while mingling with Rhonda and the rest of the staff and clients would make you think she’d been coming for longer. 

“I used to be shy. I just grew out of it eventually,” she tells me. 

As I walk around to take photos, Rhonda points out the clients who do not like to have their photos taken, so as to respect their privacy. 

“You can take my picture!” An older man, most likely in his seventies, raises his hand.

 “I never mind getting my picture taken!” He’s got white hair down to his shoulders with bangs that look as though he had cut them himself. His white beard matches the rest of the hair on his head. 

This client’s name was Terry, or, “Terry with a ‘T’”, which is what he introduced himself as. “People always think my name is Jerry so I started saying that instead.” 

I tried asking him where he was from but was unfamiliar with the area. I admitted to him that I was an out-of-towner.

 “Yeah, that’s right. You’re from Chicago!” 

Terry had also been there the day before. I was shocked at the fact that he remembered my name. I don’t even remember telling him what it was. 

 “My daughter’s birthday is November third.” Terry has two daughters.

 “I think if I mail her a card today, it’ll get there on time.” He gets up and walks away. I go back to the table with the rest of the Denison students I came with. 

The ‘canvas’ portion of Coffee and Canvases is pouring water over crepe paper tiles so that they bleed color onto the blank page. Crayons were supplied for whatever extra designs a participant wished to make. Rhonda’s page, needless to say, is impressive. Humble as she is, she won’t admit it. 

 “Believe it or not, a lot of recovery happens during the art activities,” Rhonda is a firm believer that art is an essential part of the recovery process. 

“You don't realize it, but when you start talking to other people when you're sitting there and you’re painting and you're listening to other people's stories... it's almost like when you're pregnant and everyone else is telling you their story about when they were pregnant. You're still learning, just not in a classroom environment.” 

After twelve years at The Main Place, Rhonda will be retiring come summer. Her last day is July first. She is looking forward to spending the summers at her newly-purchased home in Cleveland and the winters in Costa Rica with her partner. 

“It's so great when somebody comes to you and says: ‘You saved my life’ or ‘ I'm back at work’ and things like that,” says Rhonda. 

“If I can give even one person some of the gifts this place has given me… it makes me want to be here.” 

She runs on pure empathy, enough to make anyone want to be there, too.