That’s What Friends Are For

Friendship House is flourishing thanks to Iris Ijima and her staff, who focus on its members’ talents and abilities

Mental illness is not something to be afraid of, says Iris Ijima, Friendship House interim executive director and longtime staff member.

“People who have a mental illness are the same as people who don’t,” she says. “We all have the same fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams. We all want to have meaningful relationships and feel a sense of purpose in life.”

Friendship House — a place where adults who are diagnosed with serious mental afflictions like schizophrenia and depression can voluntarily participate in the clubhouse rehabilitation program’s daily operations such as gardening, cooking, publishing monthly newsletters and answering phones — is anything but scary.

Only smiles and aloha greet visitors upon entering the Kapa‘a clubhouse, where the stigma of mental illness is erased with one hug.

“The focus here is really on people’s talents and abilities, and not on the illness,” says Ijima.

When she started her job as a general staff member more than 20 years ago, the minute she walked through the doors of the treatment program, when it operated out of the psychiatric unit at Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital prior to becoming a clubhouse, one of the members gave her a warm embrace.

“I thought ‘wow, what a wonderful environment to be in,'” she recalls.

The environment is still very much the same, only differing in location, longer hours of operation and more activities for members to enjoy.

“In a clubhouse, there is always much more to be done than can be accomplished by staff alone, so staff have to seek out the skills that members have in order to complete their work,” explains Ijima.

Therefore, there is no separation between members and the staff of four — they are all considered equals.

“We work side-by-side, and it’s kind of a neat relationship,” says staff member and vocational coordinator Dave Jordan. “It’s not like doctor-patient, we’re colleagues.”

The staff always makes sure to check their egos at the door, says Ijima.

To further emphasize their equality with members, there are no designated staff offices or areas in the clubhouse, and the employees are always willing to give up their weekends or holidays to participate in social activities such as camping or volunteering at Relay for Life.

“It’s neat when people come into our clubhouse and they can’t tell the difference between staff and members — and that is pretty amazing,” says Jordan.

Members gain a sense of empowerment from this as it enforces the idea that people with mental illness are no different than anyone else, and it helps build the confidence necessary to make decisions in their lives outside of the clubhouse.

And while members and staff work and play together as colleagues, relationships are formed.

“Within this supportive environment and through meaningful work and positive relationships in the clubhouse, members regain self-worth, confidence and purpose, and also are attaining or improving the skills needed to pursue their life goals,” Ijima says.

One member, Cynch Brun, enjoys coming to the clubhouse, where she engages in the publication of the Coconut Wireless newsletter.

“I like to come here and communicate with my friends,” she says. “It’s like an ‘ohana.”

Member Jerry Collado also looks forward to spending time at Friendship House and working on the newsletter. He also is responsible for taking attendance, running morning meetings, working in the garden and sometimes washing dishes.

Another member who anticipates her daily activities at Friendship House is Emmaline Kaili.

“I used to work for a long time on the Coconut Wireless, but now I’m in food service, which I really like,” she says.

Dane Kurihara, a member who likes to run the clubhouse’s snack shop, appreciates having something to do every day.

“It makes me want to come here and do this job,” says Kurihara, who makes sure that the sodas and snacks are always in their proper place, and that everyone gets what they need and want. “You’ve got to keep it looking good,” says the Mahelona Hospital resident, who rides the transit to Friendship House every day.

“He does a great job for us and he also makes a mean beef stew,” says Ijima with a giggle.

There are 92 active members, of whom about 30 visit the clubhouse on any given day and choose an activity in which they wish to participate.

Being at the clubhouse builds life skills and helps members achieve their dreams, like holding a part-time job in the community or receiving a college education.

“I look at the words mental illness, they’re just words,” says Kaili, who would like to start her own lei-making business.

Some members like Angela Uechi have landed part-time positions in the community because Friendship House partners with local businesses and encourages them to hire their members.

“We would love to have every one of our members who has a desire to work to have a job,” says Jordan.

Acquiring a part-time job is just one of the many goals Friendship House has helped its members meet. The organization also planted a garden in recent months as an additional way of improving the lives of their members. Not only are they actively participating in the garden’s maintenance every day, they also are eating healthier with the abundant tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, cabbage, pumpkin and other vegetables they’ve been growing. Clubhouse member Charlie Song, who used to pick the vegetables off his plate and toss out the lettuce from his sandwich, is now eating a salad at lunch every day from the produce he has helped to grow.

“The other day he tapped me on the shoulder and showed me his empty salad plate. He was so proud,” says Ijima with a big smile.

It is experiences like these that have prompted Ijima to continue her work at Friendship House, where she has been employed since 1988, just one year after she graduated from college.

“Iris is the glue that holds us all together,” says Jordan, adding that she’s one of the “founding mothers” of the clubhouse model that was initiated on Kaua‘i shortly after she started. Though the Kaua‘i native and 1981 Waimea High School graduate pursued a degree in deaf education at Western Oregon State University, she became interested in psychology and returned to Hawai‘i to attend UH Hilo.

Iris and husband Russell Ijima, who live in Ele‘ele, have two children, Robyn (17) and Brandon (14), with whom Iris loves spending her free time.

It is a privilege to be a part of the Friendship House … “to be reminded every day that every person has a gift, and all you need to do is to provide the right environment and support for it to shine,” says Ijima, who considers her commute to the Friendship House’s location in Kealia an opportunity to wind down.

“It’s so nice to be in a place where people aren’t judged by their labels, but by their attributes,” she adds. “It’s a place where everyone can be themselves, including me.”

Coco Zickos photos