News & Features » Miscellany

Part 2

Never Give Up

On a late morning in July, a light rain soaks the 30-acre farm.

Begonias bloom in landscaped areas and carefully placed saplings add a suburban neighborhood touch. Nestled deep in Chesterfield County near Lake Chesdin, Gateway Farm was started in 1983 by two mothers of mentally ill adult children who were determined to find an alternative to institutional living and the then-available adult homes.

Today, the complex includes the adult home, known as the farm, which provides housing and 24-hour supervision for 15 residents; Moore House, which includes four apartments that each house two residents who have graduated to the assisted-living phase of the program; and the new Activities Center that opened in June and offers athletic and convocation space, a fitness room and a music room. Gateway's cost is $75 per person per day — a quarter of the daily cost at a state mental hospital. Funding for Gateway residents comes through private and corporate donations, Social Security, private insurance, paid Medicare and Medicaid benefits to patients, and contracts with various Community Service Boards.

Gateway's scope stretches beyond the complex into the community where four former residents now live on their own. Weekly visits to these graduates by staff members ensure they have the support they need — such as budgeting, menu planning and transportation to doctors' appointments and jobs — to continue living independently.

Although it is hot and humid outside, the mood indoors at Gateway Farm is anything but sluggish. From behind a screen door a voice calls "Are you looking for us?" A young man and woman step out onto the porch, smiling. Both wear shorts and bright T-shirts and look more like camp counselors than residents at a home for the mentally ill. "Come on in," says Blake. "It's a lot cooler in here."

Each morning at 11 a.m., the 15 adult home residents meet at the Activities Center for 45 minutes of exercise and meditation. Most days a handful of Moore House apartment residents join the group, too. Blake, a high-energy resident of Gateway Farm, acts as Gateway's coach and fitness instructor. He leads his routine with the enthusiasm and drive of tae-bo master Billy Blanks.

Blake rallies everyone — including Program Director Betty Norris and Peggy Trent, director of the assisted living program — to get blood pumping with stretching exercises and laps around the floor. A bootleg tape of the Grateful Dead's 1987 New Year's Eve concert in Oakland, Calif. — one of Blake's favorites — sets the pace.

After their warm-up, residents use the weight room on their own or play a group game of dodge ball or keep-away. There are no wallflowers here. Arms flail for the red rubber ball being hurled from one end of the room to the other.

Everyone convenes again for Blake's cool-down, what he calls meditation time. Lights are turned off, soothing music is turned on, and 17 bodies lie flat on the carpet like colorful pieces in a kaleidoscope. Blake's voice now is calm as he leads his peers to an uncongested spot in the mind. "It's so peaceful and translucent, and you thank God for life and its abundance and pleasure. You're so much more peaceful than waking up in the hospital in pain."

Photo by Chad HuntProgram Director Betty Norris has been at Gateway for more than 10 years and she still enjoys challenge. The residents and staff credit her with being the backbone, guts and heart of the organization.A large poster board covers the refrigerator at Gateway Farm: "Who am I? What makes me happy? What do I like? What are my strengths? What are my dreams?" Questions like these are posed each day to the residents as a reminder that their position in life can change. And at Gateway, it does. Of the 86 residents who have entered the program, 43 have left to live again with their families or to live independently.

The kitchen is a gathering place for this extended family. Here the residents prepare their own meals. Today, lunch is a fried-chicken salad and watermelon. It's a group effort. Paper plates line the kitchen counter. Brenda, a staff member, and Julie add the salad mix, and Tina sprinkles on the fried-chicken pieces. Amid forkfuls and sips of lemonade, chatter stirs. Someone says "little boy blue go blow your horn," for no apparent reason. Moments later a car horn is heard. Those words had sparked a sudden impulse in Tony to blow a horn and he found one waiting in the parking lot outside. Laughter springs like that in a school cafeteria, just on a smaller scale. "I need an anxiety pill," says Michael.

"Does anybody know what happened to our toaster?" asks Norris, looking around the kitchen. "Yeah," says Blake, "it ran off with our blender." Laughter again seizes the moment. Amid the stir, Tommy gazes across the lunch table and asks "Do you think there's a possibility that I could ever be a tree?"

"That's like a dream interpretation, Tommy," says Blake. "That's your mind telling you you want roots, and you want to expand and grow." Often, the wisdom of a heartfelt remark speaks volumes to the staff at Gateway where the resident to staff ratio is 3 to 1.

After lunch, those who smoke ask for a cigarette. The residents at Gateway are allowed to smoke, but on Norris' terms. That means only outside, and only one an hour. The cigarettes are stored in a cabinet in Norris' office.

Still seated at the lunch table, Norris chats frankly with Blake and Mark about their progress at Gateway. "The staff works well and there's freedom where there's structure," says Mark.

"This place has slowly and patiently tried to help me," confides Blake. Like Mark, he would like to graduate to the assisted-living phase of Gateway, the Moore House apartments. "I have goals for the next five years," he insists. "I want a car, a license and my own place."

"He'd like to go tomorrow," says Norris.

One look at Gateway's Moore House apartments and it's easy to see why it's a goal worth working for. Each two-bedroom unit is different, decorated with the serendipitous touch of Norris and Trent. "I'm a thrift-store junkie," Norris explains.

"It's the kind of apartment where a rich person would want to live," says one resident. Norris laughs at this, but she adds quickly, "The opening of the Moore House apartment assisted-living program was the greatest reward for me in the 10 years I've been at Gateway. Seeing the residents that worked so hard for years move to the next level of their lives ... words cannot express my emotions."

Little if anything falls outside Norris' job description. One day she's rubbing elbows and chatting it up with board members about fund raising — the next, she's armed with a fine-tooth comb trying like hell to help a resident whose routine hospital visit ended with a nasty case of head lice.

"Betty is what makes Gateway work," says Blake. "She's the reason I don't have to spend my life in a mental hospital, and that's a miracle."

Norris acknowledges that amid the triumphs are day-to-day struggles — the residents' side effects of medications, verbal abuse to the staff, not being able to admit everyone who needs the program, and never having enough money.

Photo by Chad HuntResidents like Tina (there are two Tinas currently living at Gateway) find part-time work in the community therapeutic — especially at Stone Mountain Orchid farm where signs of growth are literally seen daily.Still, Gateway succeeds where other institutions and facilities have failed. The sister of a resident who wishes to remain anonymous claims that for her family, Gateway saved her brother's life. "He was in a truly bad place where the only activities were chain smoking and daytime TV, he was not safe and I was afraid he would die," says the sister, who is an occupational therapist. After years of seeing a loved one shuffled through an unacceptable mental-health care system, the family too became disillusioned. But they didn't give up. Eventually they found Gateway. "I hope that other people can catch this vision. This program is a model of how a humane society treats some of its sickest and most vulnerable members."

But ironically, the small institution's success, if not carefully controlled, could lead to failure. "It's a personal scare that we become too big and take the quality away," confides Gateway's Norris.

For now, Gateway's small size is safeguarded by the number of beds available, funding and a person' s readiness to participate. "They all must buy into the program in order for it to work for them," says Norris.

Just a handful of residents have left Gateway because they couldn't adjust to the program. One requirement is that each resident complete 25 hours of work or volunteer activity — internal or external — a week. This is 14 hours more per week than is required for state licensure by the Department of Social Services. Some work up to 18 hours a week at Stone Mountain Orchid farm down the road, or at other part-time jobs in the community. Each resident has worked this summer on Gateway's mum project. Baking in the sun and treated with special fertilizer, 350 mums planted and cared for by Gateway residents wait to be purchased this October at blooming time.

On the way home from Stone Mountain Orchid, Norris and Trent decide to take a detour so that Tina and Sid can check out Heidi's new apartment. Blake reminds the crew that he has seen it already since he helped Heidi earlier with the moving. On the radio Big Bad Voodoo Daddy plays. "This is so catchy," Heidi says, perking up. She loves swing music, loves Louis Armstrong and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," she sings, adding a throaty roll to her voice. Heidi can't wait to listen to her CDs in her new apartment. Until then, she leans back in the van, tapping her keys on the window.

Jump to Part 1, 2,

Add a comment