“What does it mean to be a member of Progress Place? It means you are not a patient. It means you are a person first.”
This line was spoken during an audio tour of Progress Place, a registered charity that specializes on recovery from mental illness. It is run using a clubhouse model, which means that staff work side-by-side with its members to keep the centre running. A variety of daily activities and programs are offered daily, focusing on wellness, health, employment, and education.
Upon entering Progress Place, I was greeted by a smiling man sitting behind the reception desk. He asked me who I wanted to speak with and called up to ensure the person I was meeting was ready to see me. He was friendly and kind, and when I left he wished me a good day — what I didn’t know until the end of my tour was that he not only works for Progress Place, but he is a member as well.
Progress Place has helped over 7,000 people since it was founded in 1984, and firmly believes that “empowering people can cure.” In fact, they claim that 90 per cent of their members are not re-hospitalized after being a part of the clubhouse for two years.
The success of Progress Place is thanks to its dedicated employees, including Criss Habal-Brosek, Executive Director and a veteran employee of 32 years.
“I feel like I can relate to the staff when they first start. The Progress Place model keeps you very humble and I think that’s really important for people to remember — everyone has issues and struggles and everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and equitably, and everyone deserves opportunities. The goal is to instill hope.”
Habal-Brosek was always interested in social work, but wasn’t sure which field she wanted to go into until she started at Progress Place. During her time at York University, she tried a number of different placements, including a contract working nights at a correctional facility, a halfway house for people on parole. “If someone came in and they violated their parole, and I was working by myself on nights, I was supposed to call and have their parole revoked and they would have gone back to prison.”
“I knew I didn’t want to do that, but I was very thankful for the experience because I think it shaped who I am, in regards to my street smarts.”
After over a year at the correctional facility, a friend of hers told her about a position that had opened up at Progress Place. Over the last 32 years, Habal-Brosek worked in about every single job available at Progress Place before acquiring the position of Executive Director. Her passion and dedication to the clubhouse is undeniable — every question about her personal life automatically circles back to her work.
Progress Place boasts over 800 members, about 200 of which work at the clubhouse itself on a daily basis. Members help plan menus, run the café, perform clerical duties, participate in daily decision-making meetings, and even lead tours for the public. The clubhouse itself offers health and wellness programs, a boutique with low-cost new clothing, weekly “next step” dinners, young adult programs, as well as a peer support telephone and online chat service called the “warm line.”
The transitional employment program and double recovery program are unique to Progress Place. Staff help members, who may have an uneven work history, train for and gain employment. This support includes covering the member at their workplace if they have a medical appointment. The double recovery program offers multiple anonymous meeting spaces and support for those with substance abuse or mental health issues.
Staff offer training programs to businesses or organizations like the Toronto Transit Commission, who want to learn how about the stigma of mental illness with compassion and understanding. Progress Place is also exploring modern avenues to help spread their message and educate people on the stigma surrounding mental health. Their goal is to become as well-known for mental health as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The clubhouse has already expanded beyond their location on Church St. They opened up a pilot seniors day program and it has been quite the success. “As people age, depression sets in because people are lonely and isolated,” Habal-Brosek said. “Half of the seniors that go to the day program never knew they had a diagnosis and they have since been able to go to doctors and get medication.”
Habal-Brosek was incredibly excited to discuss Progress Place’s latest development in Mount Dennis, a program that is run in a retrofitted recreational space in a condo tower. They run March Break programs for teens, offer health services, and mental health workshops, and Habal-Brosek hopes it leads to other partnerships with developers throughout the city.
Their newest venture, recently launched on Jan. 20, is Radio Totally Normal Toronto, a monthly podcast that hopes to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. In their debut broadcast, hosts provide an audio tour of Progress Place and discuss how to stay mentally healthy.
The unfortunate reality is that Progress Place hasn’t received an increase in funding over the last four years, despite the increase in cost of living. The clubhouse has evolved immensely since it opened and hopes to continue to do so.
As for Habal-Brosek — she has no plans to leave Progress Place. The positive response she sees from the community and from her members makes it all worthwhile.
“You get to hear such positive stories, whereas in a hospital situation, I feel kind of sad for people that work there because they see people at their worst. What really is inspiring is getting to see people who have never worked go out to their first job, go back to school to finish their high school diploma, or go to university and graduate.”
And that’s what Progress Place is all about.