Carriage House helps people feel “the love”

Even behind a mask, you can tell Cynthia is smiling.

Her eyes crinkle at the edges, her mask moves up, and her cheerfulness shines through.

Cynthia Hayes, a member of the Carriage House in Fort Wayne, acknowledges that she isn’t always smiling. Born with Hydrocephalus, she also struggles with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and most recently she was diagnosed with PTSD.

Health care workers and medication help her manage her mental health, but her Carriage House family is what brings joy to her days.

“If it weren’t for Carriage House, I’d be lost,” she says. “They have given me a lot of hope. Before I came to Carriage House, I was so depressed. I was so scared. I was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship; I didn’t have the courage to leave. After a few years coming to the Carriage House, I was able to leave.”

Founded in 1997, the Carriage House is a Clubhouse Model program; its mission is to assist people in recovering from mental illness and returning to the community. The big, bustling house on Lake Avenue offers a non-traditional setting, one where members work side-by-side with staff on everything from cooking meals, to cleaning bathrooms, to answering the phone.

Supported in part by grants from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, the Carriage House has grown from a few dozen members to more than 1,800.

Executive Director Alexander “Andy” Wilson calls the Clubhouse Model “weird and wonderful…hope and community and purpose are the bedrocks to overcome our difficulties.”

Life became much more difficult than usual when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That’s when staff and members took quick action. Setting up a robust outreach program, through home visits, emails, phone calls, Facebook, and Zoom meetings, they worked to check in with each other and help fight the isolation of quarantine. Although the Carriage House is once again open, with members and staff wearing masks and distancing, a Zoom room is still open 24 hours a day for anyone needing connection.

“We always end our Zoom meetings by saying “I love you,” says Andy. “That’s one great thing to come out of the pandemic.”

Cynthia agrees. Throughout the last year, she has helped deliver meals and messages to members and been grateful for the opportunity to give as well as receive.

“One of my really good friends, who is also a member of the Carriage House, I clean for her whenever she needs it because she can’t get around,” says Cynthia. “She’ll call and say ‘Can you come over?’ I clean for her and I get to spend time with her too. It helps us both.

It’s that support for each other that makes the Carriage House so special. Like any family, members lean on each other and reach out when they need help.

“I’m not afraid to call them in the middle of the night if there’s something wrong,” says Cynthia. “They’re like family. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”