Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 30, 2013

Retired firefighter Pat Renshaw reaches out to community's mentally ill

By Carson Gerber Kokomo Tribune
Tribune staff writer

— It’d been a while since 56-year-old Pat Renshaw had volunteered somewhere.

When he was working as a Kokomo firefighter, he also worked part-time at Bona Vista helping clients with daily tasks like shopping, cooking or getting to doctor’s appointments.

Renshaw said he loved working with the non-profit group, but he had to give it up due to personal circumstances.

When he retired a few years ago after serving more than 30 years as a firefighter, Renshaw decided it was time to get back into volunteering. After all, he had the time now, and he missed being involved with a good cause.

“I missed the clients at Bona Vista,” he said. “They were just wonderful people.”

So one day, he decided to check out the Howard County Mental Health Association. Renshaw said he heard about the organization years ago when he was working with his church’s youth group, but he didn’t know much about it.

“I just came one Monday night and introduced myself,” he said. “It clicked. I thought, ‘I have to be here.’ It resonated with me.”

What resonated with Renshaw was an outreach called Social Club. Every Monday evening, any mental health patient in Howard or Miami counties could come to the basement at the Howard Masonic Lodge on North Washington Street for a party.

Patients can dance, get something to eat, talk with other patients and generally have a good time. Someone even dresses up as Elvis and sings old radio hits. On average, around 150 people show up.

Renshaw said he found his niche volunteering as a door greeter at Social Club. He’s been doing it nearly every Monday evening for the last three years.

“I almost know everybody’s name by now,” he said. “I like to always see how everyone is doing. Everybody comes, we turn the music up loud, and everybody has a great time. It’s a special feeling.”

Although Social Club is meant to provide a fun time for mental health patients, its real aim is much more serious — reaching out to people who often slip through the cracks.

“My role is just to help out,” Renshaw said. “But the real goal of the association is make people aware that mental health affects a lot of people. It’s more than just one disease or set of illnesses.”

Executive Director Jill Snyder said one of the major roles of the organization is to raise awareness about mental illness, and its impact on the community.

“Mental illness isn’t just schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder,” she said. “We’re talking addictions or autism or dementia or Alzheimer’s or abuse. It’s a huge, huge umbrella.”

Snyder said the biggest mission of the non-profit is to provide clients with assistance in times of need, refer them to the right people to get help and advocate for those who suffer from mental illness.

To that end, the organization has certified councilors who provide interventions and therapy. They currently hold a veteran’s support group to let people unload, and host a panic and anxiety group that meets every other week.

The organization is also starting a new class called “Blended Families: Survival 101.”

The Mental Health Association also has a small food and clothes pantry to assist patients in emergencies.

“Let’s face it, with all the cut backs across the nation, including Indiana, there’s a lot people out there struggling to get help,” Snyder said. “If you don’t have insurance and you don’t have money, where are you going to go? What we don’t want to happen is someone being denied services.”

Renshaw said he likes volunteering with the organization because mental health is a kind of underdog issue, and doesn’t get the kind of attention that other problems like poverty or homelessness get.

“There’re a lot of places you can go to volunteer, but mental health is often overlooked,” he said. “But it’s something everybody is touched by somewhere along the line, because it covers such a broad spectrum of issues.”

Over the last three years, Renshaw said it’s been good to see the positive impact volunteers can have on someone struggling with a mental disorder.

But it isn’t just a one-way street. He said his life has been changed for the better since he started volunteering at the Mental Health Association.

“The people I help here enrich my life tremendously,” he said. “It’s more than just a good feeling. It’s fulfilling. All the people who come to the Social Club who are socializing and having a good time — they’re the ones setting an example for me sometimes.”

Renshaw said they can always use more volunteers to come hang out on Monday evenings at Social Club, and encouraged anyone who’s curious to stop by sometime.

“Everybody I meet here at the association is so wonderful,” he said. “They’re really good people, and I like to be around people like that … The more you get involved, the more wonderful, good people you’ll meet, and the more fulfilling your life will be.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.