Clark Bacco whips out his harmonica and plays a short tune. Today, music is an icebreaker at the orientation session he's leading in a conference room in Greeley.
When the song is done, Clark dives right into the presentation.
"Here's our first slide. Welcome," he says. "Welcome to Frontier House."
Frontier House is an organization for people with a history of mental illness. Founded in 1990, it follows the Clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation.
"The purpose of the clubhouse is really to provide a place to belong, a place to contribute," said program director Renee Schell. "A place to develop meaningful relationships, a place to be a part of meaningful work and a place to return to."
The people who join Frontier House are called members. They work alongside a small staff to run the daily business operations of the clubhouse. Members can participate in clerical or kitchen work units, which includes tasks like answering the phone, bookkeeping or preparing meals.
Bacco became a member about two and a half years ago after he was discharged from a nursing home. He'd heard about Frontier House from a buddy and quickly got involved. Bacco enjoys leading orientations.
"The Frontier House keeps me active, gives me self-worth or that's what I get out of it," said Bacco. "I did have a history of substance use disorder throughout my life but that really was just masking the fringes of depression and anxiety that ended up resulting in a bipolar (diagnosis)."
In 1948, the first clubhouse was started by a group called "We Are Not Alone'"in New York City. Clubhouse International was established almost 50 years later as a resource for the growing community.
Frontier House is part of Clubhouse International which has 300 sites in more than 30 countries. There are 37 standards that govern all aspects of the program, from the space to functions of the house. The first standard: membership is voluntary and without time limits.
"It's very important that they're here because they want to be here because they see the value of being a member in the clubhouse," said Schell.
Frontier House is funded through North Range Behavioral Health and a Medicaid block grant. The clubhouse does not focus on diagnoses or provide traditional, clinical therapy. Instead, the program is about honing people's strengths, abilities and passions.
"The therapy comes from the real-life things that our members are involved in that your and I and everybody else do in their day-to-day lives," Schell said. "We connect with people, we participate in things that are meaningful and interesting to us. That's where the therapy comes in the clubhouse."
'Matchmakers for jobs'
Employment support is a cornerstone of the clubhouse model. Frontier House provides members with three different options to pursue a job. This includes transitional employment, which is specific to the Clubhouse model, and independent employment.
The third is Individualized Placement and Support (IPS). IPS is an evidence-based practice that provides all the support wanted and needed for a person to become successfully employed.
"I think the employment piece is necessary," said Jauniece Armstrong, an employment specialist at Frontier House. "Once you start working, you become identified as a member of society who's working and becoming productive and contributing to society rather than sitting on a couch somewhere."
IPS is individualized job placement. Armstrong meets with members to find out what they want to do and help them achieve it. They work together on all aspects of job seeking, including reviewing resumes and preparing for interviews. Then, Armstrong goes out and talks to employers to find out what they need.
"We're like matchmakers for jobs," said Schell.
Frontier House found a successful job match for Howard Taft Norvell III.
Norvell has been a member of the clubhouse for about 15 years. It was the staff, he said, that made him come back after his first day.
"They're very knowledgeable in their interactions with the people here," said Norvell.
Norvell utilized this knowledge. He worked with an employment specialist and staff to find a part-time job as a driver, delivering auto parts to local mechanics.
"After getting a degree, I wanted to try something in the job market," he said. "Fairly easy just to see if I could handle the routine of basically nine to five."
According to national data, more than 60% of people with serious mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder or depression, want to work — but only 15% are employed. For IPS participants, the national average employment rate is about 46%.
In the mid-2000s, Colorado received a federal grant to implement IPS in three community mental health centers. The program has grown to include 70% of the state's centers, including North Range Behavioral Health which funds the program at Frontier House.
Today, IPS is administered by the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) and funding comes from the state's general fund.
"Employment is a social determinant of health," said Paul Barnett, associate director of adult treatment and recovery programs at OBH. "It's really becoming known that it's a critical piece of people's recovery from either mental health or substance use problems."
Over the years, IPS programs have served tens of thousands of Coloradans. From Oct. 2018 to Sept. 2019, 3,539 people participated in IPS and 1,756 of those were employed, for an employment rate of 50%.
"They benefit tremendously," said Barnett. "Their mental health problems decrease, the cost of providing mental health services decreases, psychiatric hospitalizations go down."
Frontier House also provides supported education. This service is broad and encompasses anything a member wants to learn, from a computer course to obtaining a master's degree.
Andrew Butler, who uses a pseudonym for privacy, has been a member since 2004. She comes a couple times a week and works on data entry and banking for the clubhouse.
The clubhouse helped Butler finish a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Northern Colorado. She'd worked towards this goal for three decades but could never quite finish, Butler said, due to cyclical depression.
"They asked me what I needed, whether I needed encouragement or a kick in the pants," she joked. "I said a kick in the pants."
Butler said she was elated to receive her diploma.
A place to belong
At the orientation session, Bacco asks two new members, Elissa Goldman and Nickolay Burke, to introduce themselves and their passions.
"I love animals," says Goldman, who's already been coming to Frontier House for a couple weeks. "I'm passionate about crocheting and making people blankets."
Goldman worked as a receptionist and loves to cook, so she jumped right into the daily clerical and kitchen tasks of the clubhouse. Goldman hopes Frontier House can help her get an ID and find a permanent place to live.
But since she's been a member, Goldman says, she's been sober.
"I've done a little bit of everything here and I really like it because they make me feel at home," Goldman continues. "They make me feel comfortable and I can be me and not have to wear a mask."