Adults living with severe and persistent mental illness encounter numerous obstacles to achieving optimal health and wellness. Because many (75%) are diagnosed as young adults, they can face a literal lifetime of health-related challenges—which drastically reduce their life expectancy as a result. Then there are the other hurdles to wellness that can come with mental illness, from financial hardship to a crippling lack of motivation.
Fortunately, for members of The Academy, wellness isn’t an afterthought. Thanks to the nonprofit’s multifaceted F.I.T. initiative, wellness is woven into everything that happens at this wonderful place. And the results speak for themselves: Academy members happily report they have lost weight, rediscovered their artistic side, started socializing again, and more.
A Working Community
The Academy is a working community that provides a pathway to success, friendship, and careers for adults in mental-health recovery. It follows the “Clubhouse model,” providing a community-center location where participants (called “members”) can build long-term relationships that support them in obtaining employment skills, education, social connection, and other opportunities. The Academy has operated from its flagship campus on Glengary Street in Sarasota since 2017. It recently expanded to a second campus in Bradenton to better serve members traveling from Manatee County.
“Recovery through work” has been a mantra of the organization from day one. The Academy offers comprehensive vocational programs (with impressive facilities) in the culinary arts, business and technology, and graphic design and multimedia. Members can work side-by-side with Academy staff, gaining job skills while keeping the organization humming along. The culinary team, for example, prepares and serves a nutritious, multicourse lunch daily for members and staff and also caters special events. From each vocational team, members can pursue paid transitional or supported employment in the community thanks to generous employment partners.
But the path to recovery includes much more than a job. That’s why The Academy is embedding wellness into all aspects of the day for members (and staff). The team developed a wellness initiative encompassing the “8 dimensions of wellness,” a holistic model promoted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These interconnected dimensions range from physical and emotional wellness to social and spiritual well-being. Barancik Foundation partnered with The Academy by investing a $200,000 grant to bring this ambitious initiative to life.
Fun New Flexes
Helping to lead the way to wellness for members and staff is wellness coordinator Dalya Aponte-Sotomayor. She has developed and implemented a core curriculum of activities and education tailored for adults in mental health recovery. But Dalya is quick to point out that members shape programs through monthly meetings of a Wellness Committee. They even take a leadership role in facilitating workshops on a range of wellness topics. “Previously, we had one wellness-based activity a week,” says Dalya. “That’s increased to having a wellness-based activity every day of the week.”
The whole effort started with a wellness survey of the entire organization, to see what was lacking. The good news? Some dimensions of wellness were already built into The Academy by nature of its programming, particularly occupational and social wellness. The biggest need identified was physical wellness, followed by emotional and spiritual wellness. Financial wellness was another dimension that was elevated.
“We got a local gym membership where we can take a certain number of people each week,” says Dalya. “We provide the transportation, and it’s all voluntary for members.” Weekly yoga is another popular offering. While most days now have a set wellness activity, Thursdays are an open wellness day: One week a staff member might teach a diabetes-awareness session, while the next features a seminar on photography followed by a photo scavenger hunt in downtown Sarasota.
The initiative goes well beyond the physical and emotional. “In mental wellness, it’s very important to have a clean space,” says Dalya. Members who never learned organizational skills or how to take care of their environment now have opportunities to do so. For example, members can learn how to declutter their closets at home and then donate items they no longer need to The Academy’s on-site boutique. “You’re learning that part of environmental wellness — getting rid of the old, and coming in with new energy,” says Dalya. “A clean and organized space gives you a clearer mindset.”
A Culture of Wellness
In a relatively short time, wellness has taken root. “Members are more aware of how they’re participating in their own wellness,” says Dalya. “We’ve built a culture here.”
Academy members even named — or renamed — the initiative itself. At a Wellness Committee meeting, someone asked if the original name (Wellness Within Reach) might be changed. After much collaborative discussion, the group arrived at F.I.T., short for “fully in transformation.”
“People look at it and they get it.” Dalya says. “It encompasses everything — your mental fitness, your financial fitness, your physical fitness.”
The graphic-design team made custom T-shirts for the initiative. The business & tech team produces all the presentations for classes and seminars. The culinary team, meanwhile, focuses on nourishment. “If a member suggests a recipe and it’s not healthy, we’ll say, ‘Hey, here’s how we can make this alternative,’” notes Dalya. “If it calls for cream, we might use coconut milk. The main point is that all of this is going to translate into their personal lives.”
As part of the Barancik Foundation grant, The Academy commissioned a study of its wellness initiative, to understand how it’s working and, hopefully, share lessons with other clubhouses. University of South Florida research professor Dr. Roxann Taormina has been evaluating the process and impact of the F.I.T. initiative, and she’s finding that members have increased their understanding of the multiple dimensions of wellness.
“You’re a whole person,” says Dr. Taormina. “You’re not just your diagnosis; you’re not just a person with a mental-health challenge. Members have mentioned that—they’re starting to now feel ‘whole,’ like there are other pieces to them than just what their focus has been or what other people have told them they are for a lot of their lives.”
For Dalya, collaborating with members on the wellness effort is a big part of its success. “It’s a fun process,” she says. “The members are involved in everything. It’s what they want. At the end of the day, it’s for them to improve their lives.”
To learn more about The Academy at Glengary, The Academy at Bradenton, and The Academy’s F.I.T. initiative, visit www.academysrq.org.