WOOSTER — Jennifer Hill, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2012, began hearing voices when she was a 10th-grader.
The 40-year-old has struggled with her mental illness for years but has found ways to care for herself and others, most recently at the MOCA House Program in Wooster. Though not an employee of the peer recovery drop-in center open for free to anyone dealing with a mental illness, she stops by three to four times a week. Activities like crocheting and bowling at Wayne Lanes soothe her. But Wednesdays, when she leads meetings for the schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder group, are her favorite.
The group of 12 to 14 people — or as the MOCA House calls them, “peers” — talks openly about what’s bothering them or issues and emotions that bubble up in their heads.
“We’re just there to support and uplift each other,” Hill said.
Spending time at the MOCA House, along with raising her 9-year-old daughter, babysitting, playing clarinet in the Orrville Community Band, writing poetry and seeing her counselor, allows her to stay busy and prioritize her mental health. Staying grounded can be difficult, and “I don’t know when things are real and not real, sometimes,” Hill said. But once she started coming to the center, Hill said her life gained a sense of balance.
“It’s really changed my life and helped me be a better advocate for mental illness,” she said.
Helen Walkerly, who became the first executive director in 2012 but worked with the organization for years before that, said MOCA House is NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Wayne and Holmes Counties’ “most-known program.” The center — located at 2525 Back Orrville Road in Wooster — opened its doors in 2010 for anyone over the age of 18 “who wants to work on their recovery and live a healthy life.”
“If I had to get up every morning and deal with some of the challenges that these folks deal with, I’m not sure I’d have as much courage as they have,” Walkerly said. “They really are my heroes. They just work so hard to have a decent life. So this has just been my passion.”
The center is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and offers a wide range of activities: art workshops, fitness classes, games and social time, sewing and a spirituality and prayer class, which always begins with jokes because “often times, people with depression don’t laugh,” Walkerly said.
Jackie Hunter, manager of MOCA House, said she often takes the “peers” on outings to bowl, fish, enjoy the zoo or museum and shop for groceries or clothing at Goodwill.
“Because when you have a diagnosis, you sometimes have a difficult time going out into the public by yourself, so if you’re with a group that understands you, you’re more apt to go out in public,” she said. “We like to do that to encourage people.”
The center also offers free transportation from a person’s home to MOCA House and back, as long as they live in Wayne or Holmes counties. Anything to “lessen their problems in life,” Hunter said.
On Fridays, the center — which has three part-time staff members and many volunteers — provides all its visitors a meal before the weekend. A group of volunteers prepares a menu, cooks and serves the meal, which Walkerly said is a special experience for attendees.
“There’s something that’s nurturing about being served,” she said. “Often times, the people that we serve don’t have money. They live in poverty. They live on their disability check. If they have a night out, it might be to McDonald’s or somewhere. To have someone serve them a meal each week, I think, is just so empowering.”
The center relies on about 43% of its funding from the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Wayne and Holmes Counties, but also acquires funds from United Way of Wayne and Holmes Counties, Orrville Area United Way, donors and fundraisers. The center’s next fundraiser, Walk and 5K for Wellness, will take place May 2 at the Secrest Welcome and Education Center.
The center had 4,297 visits in 2018 and 4,428 visits in 2019, Walkerly said.
Not only has there been growth in attendance, but Hunter said she has witnessed people grow in personal ways. Some have gone to college or found stable jobs, while others have dropped extra pounds or moved into an apartment on their own. It’s a big deal for them, she said, and something they should be proud of.
“I always say NAMI saved my life because in a difficult time, I was able to come here and help other people,” she said. “And by helping other people, I was helping myself. I have seen people grow from isolating to coming here once a week, coming here twice a week and then just every day. They get out of the house. We see people transform.”
Walkerly agrees. She has seen this growth in people like Hill.
“It’s because their self-worth is built up and they realize that they’re smart and they can do this,” she said. “They’re miracles.”
— Reporter Valerie Royzman can be reached at 330-287-1638, email@example.com or on Twitter @valerieroyzman.
Name: MOCA House Program
About: The MOCA House (Motivating Optimistic Caring Accepting House) is a program through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Wayne and Holmes Counties that offers support and activities to those with a mental illness. The house, free and open to all from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, offers activities and social interaction for anyone recovering from a mental illness who is looking to relax or make friends
How to help: To donate to NAMI Wayne and Holmes Counties, you can call the number below or visit www.namiwayneholmes.org/donate. You can also send a check to the nonprofit. The address is listed on the website. Call the MOCA House if you would like to volunteer.