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Portals House Opens Doors for Mentally Ill

September 09, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

Almost every time he pops a cookie into the Corporate Cookie oven, Bob West sets another personal record.

His job at the mid-Wilshire cookie store on Wilshire Boulevard is the first steady employment West has had since moving to California from Illinois in 1979. And this is the first year he has not spent some time inside a mental institution since 1976.

Training and Therapy

West, 39, attributes these triumphs in large part to a work-therapy program at Portals House, a mid-Wilshire nonprofit agency that helps psychiatrically disabled people live independently.

Primarily schizophrenics or manic-depressives, they start by cleaning, cooking or working as clerks at the agency's two residences and two offices. If successful, they begin the major phase of the program as volunteers at nonprofit organizations. Afterward, a few get salaried jobs at the 5-month-old, profit-oriented Corporate Cookie.

The goal is to provide therapy and get people ready for jobs in the outside world by finding their skills through volunteer work.

"We work with people's strengths, encourage them to identify parts of themselves which are strong, which are capable," said Judy Alexander, community services coordinator of Portals House, which opened in 1955.

"It's not work as part of rehabilitation. That has been around. . . . We like to place them in jobs tailored to their skills. When we go out to an organization, we like to ask what they would ask a volunteer to do that is different than what people perceive as 'normal' volunteer activities. So that puts them in a situation which simulates, as close as possible, a job."

Areta Crowell, deputy director for community support and residential services at the county Department of Health, said: "It's an approach that we like and we want to see more of. There's an awful lot of people who need this and not nearly enough who are getting it."

Alexander said that Portals House, with an annual budget of $1.7 million, has recruited more than 40 nonprofit agencies to join its program of prevocational work for the chronically mentally ill.

Current volunteers repair tape recording machines at the Braille Institute, provide information at City Hall and prepare meals for Meals on Wheels.

"It helps them to see themselves as capable people who can function in the world," Alexander said. "It gets them out of the role as patient into a giving role, a service provider.

"We reinforce sound work behaviors and attitudes, those most often interfered with by mental illness or by hospitalization, which takes away a person's responsibility for themselves."

Marv Weinstein, chief executive officer of Portals House and a licensed clinical social worker, said that this realignment of attitudes is necessary because many members, as they are called, are "very fearful, socially isolated, disconnected people. They can't have relationships and have been constant failures."

Weinstein said members are usually in their 20s, 30s or 40s and reach Portals House through referrals from mental health programs, therapists or friends. Most live on Supplemental Security Income and, like West, are hampered by a severe lack of confidence as they seek to re-enter the work world.

In and Out of Hospital

"I had been in and out of so many hospitals I didn't feel I could work," West recalled during a recent interview. "If I started to feel better, I would get sick again."

His prognosis improved in 1985. Although hospitalized for what he said was severe depression, he soon felt well enough to attend school and earn certificates in typing and operating a switchboard.

Moving to Portals House a few months later, he cleaned, prepared food and worked as a clerk. He volunteered to work part time with children at County-USC Medical Center and to operate a switchboard at Queen of Angels Hospital. Later he joined the Corporate Cookie and now trains others in baking.

"They told me I'm going to be moving into a management position soon," he said, wearing a red tie and white dress shirt, his required uniform.

Another volunteer is already in management but wears no uniform. Tall, slender Norm Griffin, 50, of West Los Angeles, trains information aides at City Hall. Griffin started by dispensing information to the public and worked his way up.

"Most of my job history has been public-contact work and I feel real proud of what I'm doing," he said, sitting behind a desk in a City Hall lobby during a recent interview. "This is what I wanted for many years and did not know how to get, and Portals House offered me the opportunity."

'Job of Dignity'

Griffin, noting that administrators ask for his ideas, said, "This is my perfect job as far as volunteer work is concerned. I call it my job of dignity."

Growing up in Glendale, he said he wanted to attend Los Angeles City College but it never worked out. He bagged groceries for 20 years and worked as a custodian.

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