By Marianne E. Weaver, Contributing Writer | Photos by Lillis Werder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2012 approximately 43.7 million people in the United
States had some sort of mental illness diagnosis. That’s 18.6 percent of all adults in the U.S. Linda J. Pemberton, program manager of Prince William Community Services’ Community Mental Health Services, said the prevalence of mental illness in this region tracks with the national average.
Recently, she said, she’s seen a trend of mental illness recovery initiatives focused on peer-led support groups. Those groups are based on the hope that comes from someone who has lived the experience and can lend an empathetic hand to others who are struggling. However, these settings are few and far between.
“People who are diagnosed with mental illness share the same assumptions as the general public. They don’t know people who have diagnosis and are successful and living happy lives,” Pemberton said. “At Trillium you meet people in various places on their recovery journey – some who were recently diagnosed and others who are
managing their symptoms and going to work every day.”
Trillium Drop-In Center, located at 13184 Centerpointe Way in Woodbridge, opened its doors in September 2007 as a free peerled, private nonprofit center for adults that promotes, encourages and facilitates recovery from serious mental illness through supportive, recreational, educational and social activities. The organization also engages the community to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
According to Pemberton, Trillium was the first drop-in center for the mentally ill in this region.
Trillium founders Ann Gurtler, Cynthia Dudley and Traci Jones met in 2004 at a mental health peer-to-peer support meeting. In early 2007, they heard buzz about potential state funding available to mental health consumers. Although their friendships had grown at the weekly meetings, the women understood how difficult it is for most people with a mental illness diagnosis to cultivate friendships while staying focused on their psychological stability.
That April, they gathered around a table at IHOP in Manassas to meet with Phil Ross, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Prince William (NAMI-PW), sharing with him their vision for a peer-led drop-in center, dedicated to building better lives for those affected by mental illness. He confirmed that funding was available through the Commonwealth of Virginia for consumer-run programs. The catch: The grant application was due in just a few weeks.
None of the women had any experience writing grants, but Gurtler took the writing lead. Ross tweaked the final product. The grant was accepted, money was secured, and Trillium was born.
“Trillium is a three-petal flower found in the wild, symbolizing the three women who founded [the center],” states the center’s website. “And it clearly illustrates the healing power of their friendship, which has blossomed in the midst of challenging personal experiences.”
In July 2008, Trillium secured additional funding and the center doubled in size. So too, have the number of visitors. Since its inception, the center has had more than 53,000 visits and helped more than 2,300 people, some who visit daily.
Low Key and Welcoming
Dudley, now Trillium’s executive director, said about 40 people visit the center every day, with one new visitor each day.
“We try to keep the attitude low key and welcoming so people like to come in,” she said.
The center’s recreation program helps visitors distract themselves from their psychiatric symptoms and increase their self-esteem by playing games, including pool and ping-pong; indulging their creative side in the arts and crafts room; attending picnics and parties and participating in peer-led support groups.
“We get them in the door for the social activities,” said Dudley, “Then we have a conversation about recovery.”
There is no cost to attend Trillium. The eight facilitators and one driver on staff have a mental illness diagnosis themselves. Michelle Zahn, senior facilitator, started visiting Trillium in June 2009.
“It’s become clear to me that this is an amazing place,” Zahn said. “It is a blessing to work here, to see the miracles here. People come from a place of not speaking to now [being] vibrant and talkative, with so much to offer the world.”
When some regular Trillium visitors overheard this conversation, they pulled their chairs around the card table and shared their stories. (Last names are withheld to maintain privacy.)
Irene said before finding her way to Trillium, she was in the hospital every other month.
“I was lost as far back as I can remember,” she said. “The staff is wonderful, I call them family. They got me out of my shell. This place is a sanctuary for me.”
Carl first visited Trillium in 2009.
“I was going through a lot of mental health issues,” he said. “I was able to come here to unwind and relax. The staff helped me balance my illness. Now I have the courage to do things. I can get out and drive.”
Unlike Carl, many visitors are not able to drive, said Dudley. From its inception, she said it was important to find a location easily accessible by public transportation – the OmniLink bus drops visitors across the street. Trillium provides bus tokens to consumers when financially necessary and also has a van to transport people who have no other access to transportation.
Rhonda said she came to Trillium nervous and depressed. “But now I have a place to come and unwind. It is a wonderful place to be.”
James added, “This place has kept me alive.”
“Trillium provides hope and a sense of normalcy,” noted Pemberton. “It is that sense of hope that reduces stigma.”
Reducing that stigma, said Dudley, is her main goal for 2015: “If we could impact the stigma, wouldn’t that be amazing?”
To that end, in addition to speaking at public events, Trillium has earned a seat at the Prince William General District Court special docket, DIVERT. This committee brings together community leaders to divert nonviolent criminal defendants with mental health issues from the judicial system into mental health services when appropriate. Committee members are also drawn from local police departments, the County Community Services Board, regional adult detention centers, NAMI, magistrates, defense attorneys, prosecutors and probation services.
“In the past we would not have a mental health consumer in the group,” said Pemberton. “But this is different – Trillium has an equal voice at the table.”
A longer-term goal, said Dudley, is to find funding to support job training. But, she noted, to make that happen, Trillium needs additional support from the community.
Although the initial grant opened the doors, community support and involvement keeps the center running. Every Thursday Panera Bread at The Glen donates food. On Fridays, the Wawa on Minnieville Road provides breakfast.
Trillium accepts donations at trilliumdropincenter.org/donate.php. This page also features the center’s “wish list” of
items they need on a regular basis, such as Cup o’ Noodles, juice packs and copy paper.
Trillium is a United Way approved organization, donor designation number 8540, and is listed in the Combined Federal Campaign, number 35597. Online shoppers can support Trillium by using goodsearch.com/?charityid=947055 to link to favorite retailers.
Marianne Weaver is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh, and an MJ from Temple University. She is married to recently retired Air Force Lt. Col. Erik Weaver. Along with their two children they’ve settled into their “forever home” in Gainesville, Va. Her email address is