WATERVILLE — A club that has served people with mental illness and in emotional distress for 32 years might be forced to close as part of the state’s plan to close eight of 12 peer centers and social clubs around the state.

The Waterville Social Club on Ticonic Street provides a place to socialize, learn to cook, have a meal, do artwork, play games, do laundry, take a shower or read the newspaper. Some of those who come are homeless and many have no family, friends or support group, those associated with the center said.

According to its website, it is “designed to assist adults who are recovering from mental illness. We do not offer therapy, but rather peer and social support utilizing a psychosocial model.”

Members of the peer-driven center make the rules and serve on a board of directors.

Funded by the state Department of Health and Human Services and supervised by Motivational Services Inc., the club is one of two in Kennebec County. The other is Living in the Community Wellness Center — LINC — on Memorial Drive in Augusta.

DHHS, following legislation last year seeking increased funding for the programs, will fund only one of those two centers and will require all in the state to change their models to include keeping track of members’ health, no longer allowing members to run the centers, and requiring site managers to have a severe mental illness diagnosis.

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards did not immediately return phone and email messages seeking comment late Thursday afternoon.

Members of the Waterville club met Thursday for two hours with managers of both clubs and their supervisor, John Painter, service director at Motivational Services to discuss the possible closing.

Members said they are frightened about the possibility of losing the club and worried some of their peers will commit suicide, revert to drugs or drinking or end up in the hospital if it is forced to close.

“I’ve been coming here one and a half to two years now, and I feel that this is a place I can come, get included in everything, socialize and get out of my apartment,” said Andrew Zelonis, 42, of Winslow.

“That, and a meal,” added Linda Carpenter, 51, also of Winslow. “A lot of us can’t afford to buy groceries. I work and I still can’t afford to buy groceries.” The center serves one meal a day.

Skowhegan resident Florence Laigaie, whose son, Wayne Schwarz, lives with her and has been coming to the center 11 years, said he could not be there Thursday because listening to the discussion about the club’s possible closing would cause him stress and thus, seizures. The club, she said, provides emotional support that is critical to his well-being.

“Here, he interacts with people,” Laigaie said. “He’s cooking. He’s learning how to shoot pool. Everybody thinks the world of him. If it closes, my son won’t have a life.”

Emotions ran high at the club Thursday as Painter, Waterville club site manager Gary Stevens and Troy Henderson, senior peer leader of the Augusta club, explained to members as best they could about the clubs’ uncertain future.

DHHS and the state Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services will hold a conference Friday for those interested in bidding on requests for proposals from the department to take over the peer-run centers. The meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the main conference room on the second floor at the DHHS offices at 41 Anthony Ave. in Augusta. Proposals are due by May 4.

Painter, supervisor of the Waterville and Augusta clubs, said he received the paperwork for the request for proposals, which included notification that eight centers would close, only last week. That paperwork says the state will require centers to provide computer infrastructure that traditional health care centers have, at the same cost; and the statewide rules the 12 centers created for running those centers would be eliminated, and now the state will dictate the rules.

Painter said the change would alter the heart of what the centers are all about.

“The mantra of the people who come to these centers is, ‘Nothing about us without us,'” he said. “This is without them.”

Painter, a psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner who has worked 16 years at Motivational Services, said the centers work well with their current structure.

“Waterville is a great center,” he said. “It’s been in this community for more than 30 years. It’s well known. People know it.”

DHHS funds the Waterville and Augusta clubs, which each receive $119,000 a year, he said. The centers are “low barrier, low cost” and provide warm and welcoming places, open to anybody, he said.

Henderson, manager of the Augusta club and president of the Maine Association of Peer Support and Recovery Center, which represents the 12 centers statewide, gave club members on Thursday an overview of what has occurred with the state plans. Zelonis asked which club will be closing — the Waterville club or Augusta’s.

“I don’t know whose center is going to close,” Henderson said. “I’m terrified. The state said there’s going to be eight and they’re going to be in these districts.”

Stevens said he is worried about the 500 to 550 Waterville club members who visit every month. The new state rules would require that site managers get a serious mental illness diagnosis, which he does not have, so he probably would lose his job. He said that while he loves his job and does not want to lose it, his focus right now is on keeping the club open.

“I feel closer to these people here than at any other job I’ve had, so to tell me I can’t do the job because I don’t have a mental illness is bogus,” he said.

Several club members said Stevens has been a good site manager, they are comfortable with him, and they do not want him to leave.

Member Jolean Tupper, 62, of Unity, said people who come to the club are attuned to other members’ situations and pick up on how they are feeling and help them if they are having a hard time.

“They can come here and be validated no matter what stage of mental illness they’re in or not in,” she said.

Painter said after the meeting that all 12 centers in Maine had been flat-funded for the last 20 years and the centers got together 1 1/2 years ago and submitted two bills to the Legislature for funding that would make up for money the centers had not received over 20 years.

One bill would give a 7 percent, one-time increase to the centers — or $1.2 million divided by 12 centers.

Part of DHHS response to the legislation for ongoing funding to the centers was to put out the request for proposals, which included a plan to eliminate four centers, according to Painter.

The Waterville club is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. It serves people over 18, and some members are in their 70s, Stevens said.

Other centers are in Bangor, Biddeford, Bridgton, Brunswick, Caribou, Livermore Falls, Lewiston, Madawaska, Portland, Rockland, and Sanford.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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