WATERVILLE — The local branch of an international organization that helps people with mental illness train for, get and hold down jobs not only has met its international standard, it has exceeded them.

The High Hopes Clubhouse, at 26 College Ave., recently was recognized by Clubhouse International as a chapter of distinction among the more than 320 such clubhouses in 34 countries for having 79 percent of its active members employed.

The Waterville club was formed 20 years ago to provide training, education, jobs and social connections to those with severe and persistent mental illness. While the standard set for the clubs internationally is that at least 20 percent of average daily membership work, 79 percent of High Hopes’ 150 active members are employed.

A program of Kennebec Behavioral Health, High Hopes will celebrate that distinction — and its 20th anniversary — from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday at an open house. The public is encouraged to attend.

Informational tours, a slideshow, hors d’oeuvres and welcome gifts will be on tap, and visitors will have an opportunity to meet staff and clubhouse members.

The international clubhouse’s recent accreditation report says High Hopes is an exceptional clubhouse community, excelling in its compliance with all standards internationally, according to a release from Tina Chapman, development and communications director for Kennebec Behavioral Health.

“The Clubhouse is dedicated to providing a community where members are treated with dignity and respect and (has) given everyone opportunity to be valuable members of their community,” the report says.

High Hopes Director Lisa Soucie said Wednesday that she believes the distinction comes as a result of so many employers and others in the community believing in and helping to make the club successful.

“Of course, we were thrilled,” she said of the honor. “We always strive to do the best service for our members.”

When Soucie travels around the world, people ask why the Waterville club is so strong, she said. She tries to explain that it’s about the Maine way of “taking care of our own.”

“I tell them it’s really about the community and the partnerships,” she said. “If we didn’t have employers or community folks supporting us, we wouldn’t be that strong.”

The clubhouse partners with employers to provide transitional employment sites and independent employment sites.

Club staff help train members for jobs at transitional sites including Joseph’s Fireside Steakhouse, Mainely Brews, Wendy’s, Applebee’s and Humane Society Waterville Area. Staff members learn those jobs as well so that if for any reason the club member cannot go to work on a particular day, a staff member goes in his or her place to ensure job coverage.

Transitional sites are located in Waterville and Winslow, so staff members can be there in five minutes, according to Soucie.

Other club members work at independent job sites. In addition to the 150 active club members, 20 or 30 more are new referrals to the Waterville clubhouse, Soucie said.

At the clubhouse itself, members work every day, all day, learning database entry, accounting, lawn care, kitchen work, driving a van and other skills. While some jobs they take in the community are part-time, high-turnover, entry-level jobs, the clubhouse seeks to expand their skills to try to ensure full-time, long-term employment.

“We really want to focus on career goals and livable wages,” Soucie said.

There are club members who are working as certified nurse assistants, hospital sterilization technicians and store employees, for instance.

Club members come from as far away as North New Portland, Jay, Skowhegan and Rockland.

Having a job makes a big difference in helping to boost self-esteem and confidence, according to Soucie. Having a job, she said, means being part of the larger community.

“It’s really about being a contributing part of the community — the self-value,” she said. “You can see people grow right in front of your eyes”

The recovery that occurs when people go to work and feel wanted, needed and important is transformative, Soucie said.

Soucie started working at High Hopes as a unit coordinator when it opened 20 years ago. The late Jim Schmidt, who helped to develop similar clubhouses all over the world, was her mentor and helped develop the local club. Schmidt, who retired to Rome in 1992 from New York City, was one of the world’s leading proponents of the clubhouse model for rehabilitation in the mental health field and was an international expert in employment for people with mental illness.

About 10 years ago, Soucie became director of High Hopes.

Gov. Paul LePage was a member of the club’s advisory board when the club opened and also was general manager of Marden’s Surplus & Salvage stores at the time. Marden’s became the first employer to partner with High Hopes. Since then, 47 club members have gone through the transitional employment program with Marden’s, according to Soucie. She said the governor has been invited to Friday’s open house, and police Chief Joseph Massey is expected to be there.

High Hopes receives funding from MaineCare, the state Department of Labor’s vocational rehabilitation program and grants.

High Hopes has sister clubhouses, Capitol Clubhouse in Augusta and Looking Ahead in Lewiston, which are known to be among the most effective clubhouses in the world, according to Chapman. The three clubhouses serve more than 600 members every year. According to Chapman, statewide organizations recognize the value the clubhouses provide.

NAMI Maine, for instance, presented the clubhouses with the Outstanding Partner Award this month at NAMI’s annual meeting. NAMI executive director Jenna Mehnert said the organization was honored to work with the clubhouse staff, adding, “Not only do we respect the work clubhouses accomplish in partnership with peers, we appreciate how willing they are to engage with NAMI Maine staff on various projects.”

High Hopes works with government and church officials, police and others to help ensure its success. Those wanting more information about the clubhouses may call 873-2136, extension 2136, or 888-322-2136, or go to the website www.kbhmaine.org.

Founded in 1960, Kennebec Behavioral Health operates clinics in Waterville, Augusta, Winthrop and Skowhegan.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17