Ann Arbor-based adult rehabilitation nonprofit gets fresh start during pandemic

Fresh Start Clubhouse serves members with serious mental illness

Director Summer Berman at the Fresh Start Clubhouse in Ann Arbor on Jan. 28, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – When Summer Berman realized in March that it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus would arrive in Michigan, she and her staff began to scramble.

As the executive director of Fresh Start Clubhouse, a psycho-social rehabilitation center for adults with serious mental illness, she knew daily gatherings would cease and worked quickly to come up with virtual programming for the Clubhouse’s members.

“The first few days were crisis management,” said Berman. “There was massive outreach: ‘Does everybody know what’s happening?’ ‘Does everybody have enough food or toilet paper?’”

What she didn’t see coming were the mass layoffs, in which everyone at the Clubhouse was laid off by parent agency Touchstone Services -- everyone but herself.

“That was terrible and lasted about 10 weeks,” said Berman. “For two and a half months I was working by myself and doing my best to maintain contact with our 100-plus members.”

This included daily Zoom calls -- including on weekends -- to touch base with everyone, many of whom would come to the Clubhouse on a daily or weekly basis to socialize, prepare meals together, receive job placement counseling and more.

Clubhouse member Aubrey Northrop, 28, helps clean up after lunch on Jan. 28, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

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In June, some members of staff were able to come back after they secured state funding. Berman said during the warmer months, they organized physically distant activities for members, including visits to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti farmers markets and wellness walks in nature areas.

“People with mental illness are dying on average 25 years younger than people who don’t have mental illness,” said Berman. “Physical health is really, really important. One of the things we’re worried about is that being at home you’re sedentary.”

Decision to become independent

Meanwhile behind the scenes, Touchstone Services came to a settlement agreement with Washtenaw Community Mental Health to last through the end of the fiscal year. However, the fiscal year ended on Oct. 1 and with no funding for the next fiscal year, Fresh Start Clubhouse was back at square one.

With staff down again, Berman said they were faced with several options.

“The Clubhouse, in partnership with Community Mental Health, spent a month talking with our members, staff and advisory board,” said Berman. “Ultimately, we decided (on) what was best for our membership and for the larger Washtenaw community. We are spinning off and becoming a freestanding nonprofit organization. It’s going to allow us to reach way more people.”

It will also allow Fresh Start Clubhouse to seek other revenue streams outside its contract with CMH, such as grants and individual giving.

No longer affiliated with Touchstone Services, Berman said that CMH will operate the nonprofit directly for a period of 18 months as it works to become independent. Part of losing Touchstone as its parent agency also meant losing its longtime building at 2051 S. State St.

A physical space is not needed immediately due to a spike in COVID case numbers in Michigan, but will be needed once the situation improves.

Before the pandemic, Berman would spend every holiday at the Clubhouse with its members. This year, she said they are trying to create new holiday memories online.

“In the Clubhouse, it’s part of our model and part of our standards that we celebrate holidays together,” she said. “For Thanksgiving, we just did a series of Zoom calls and played games together and watched ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ together.”

She said she will celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with its members online in hopes that it will be the last holiday season they spend apart.

Building anew

As a new incorporated nonprofit, months of hard work lay ahead, starting with monthly community information sessions. Held on Zoom, anyone interested in the program can attend.

“We’re specifically looking for people who are interested in helping us build this organization either as board members or volunteers,” said Berman. “We’re looking for people who have an interest in community growth and business development. People don’t have to have a background in mental health. Monthly sessions will be held from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and people can come and go as they want.”

Fresh Start Clubhouse is also currently hiring.

The next session is on Wednesday, Dec. 16. Here’s the meeting information:

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 947 1917 1961 One tap mobile +19292056099,,94719171961#

US (New York) +13017158592,,94719171961#

US (Germantown) Dial by your location +1

929 205 6099 US (New York) +1

301 715 8592 US (Germantown) +1

312 626 6799 US (Chicago) +1

669 900 6833 US (San Jose) +1

253 215 8782 US (Tacoma) +1

346 248 7799 US (Houston) Meeting ID: 947 1917 1961

For more information about Fresh Start Clubhouse, visit its Facebook page.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.