“In Recovery, Small Decisions and Small Steps Can Make a Big Difference.”

Charles Curie’s first job out of graduate school was at a community mental health center in Fostoria, a small town in northwestern Ohio. He headed up a program that helped people with serious mental illness transition out of the hospital into the community.

It was there that he learned the importance of empowering consumers to make their own choices rather than have a system manage their choices for them. This is the essence of the recovery model, which lays the foundation of Woodley House’s work.

“I remember one person in particular – I’ll call him Roy. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 20s. By the time I was working with him, he was in his 40s. He had been released from the state hospital and was now in the program. Roy was very disabled. He couldn’t function. He would talk about the voices waylaying him, preventing him from being able to focus on anything, to get an education or employment, despite being highly intelligent.

“But as he became stabilized on medication, I encouraged him to run for the role of chairman, which took the lead in organizing the program participants’ activities. Roy decided to do it. He ran and was voted in by his peers. And as he started to take on more responsibility, I saw him blossom and bloom. He became more confident. He was able to be a mentor to others. That just strengthened his ability to make it in the community.”

“It was clear to me early on that back then, people in institutional care—even in programs run by agencies—were consistently being managed by external structures and people. They were never able to learn how to manage their own affairs. I believe that once people see the small decisions and steps they make each day make a difference, they can gain greater levels of autonomy.”

Charley kept Roy’s experience in mind as he went on to lead state and national efforts to foster recovery by breaking down systemic barriers that prevent people from living in the community. From 2001 to 2006, he was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. From 1995 to 2001, he served as deputy secretary for Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. While there, he led an effort to reframe the state hospitals as launch pads for recovery, ensuring that the first day of admission to a state hospital, a client received a discharge plan with the goal of guiding them back out into the community. He also led efforts that ultimately eliminated the use of seclusion and restraint practices in the state hospital system. Pennsylvania’s work became a model for the rest of the country and won the national 2000 Innovations in American Government Award.

Serving on the Woodley House board gives Charley an opportunity to go back to his roots and help people in his own community.

“I’ve been very active on the national level for the past fifteen years. What motivates me about Woodley House is the idea of being engaged at a volunteer level in the community where I live, with services in my own backyard. That is very meaningful to me. Woodley House is my local connection to making sure people have a life in the community. It is nice to be able to really focus on the impact that Woodley House makes on the lives of individuals.”

“There is no other organization quite like Woodley House, focused on mental illness and housing and supportive services.”

Meet Woodley House’s Board President, Isabel Jasinowski.

Isabel’s mother, Mimi Hyde, had her first bipolar episode in 1949 when Isabel was born. This was a time before the term bipolar even existed, and very little was known about mental health. And yet despite the severe stigma surrounding mental illness, Mimi was very open about her experience.

“She was really a pioneer on how to approach mental illness as something not to be ashamed of. She always talked about it very openly. She shared with other people because she felt, ‘Ok, we don’t know what it is, but I can’t be the only one. And it’s important for people not to feel that they have to keep it a secret. Keeping it a secret just increases the pain.’

“For twenty years, she tried everything the doctors advised her to do, but they couldn’t tell her what she had because they just didn’t know in that day and age. I don’t know how she ever, survived without medication for so long. She was one of the first people in the U.S. to get on lithium.”

Bipolar disorder runs in Isabel’s immediate and extended family. She herself lives with it.

“My sister and I have always been very open on a one-to-one basis. As you might imagine, when I was in the business world, I was careful for quite some time in terms of not talking about it. But towards the end of my career, I said, “Hey, maybe I can help others.” So now that I’m retired I talk to people very openly about it.

Isabel recently retired from a career in government affairs, and is looking forward to dedicating her time to helping Woodley House as Board Chair. The Board has laid out some important goals for the near future as it faces a challenging policy environment in Washington, DC.

Currently, the DC Department of Behavioral Health is transitioning toward a “home-first” model, in which people with chronic mental illness receive supportive wrap around services only after being secured permanent housing. This differs from Woodley House, which offers services as integral parts of its program to help vulnerable individuals in crisis find more stable footing. During this time of rapid policy change, the implications for Woodley House remain unclear.

“We are not saying Home First is a bad idea. What we are saying is that some people – like the population we serve – really can’t afford any lapse in services. They don’t do well on their own without that support and they need to be in a community residential setting as they transition towards independence. Programs like Woodley House play a critical role in making sure there is no break in those critical services.”

Because the mental health sector is constantly in flux, one of Isabel’s primary goals for Woodley House is to broaden the base of public-private partnerships and resources for Woodley House consumers. The Woodley House Board kicked off a major fundraising campaign in September with the goal of raising an additional $100,000 over the next two years from private sources.

In addition to raising funds, Isabel and the Board want to raise more friends of Woodley House. For decades, Woodley House has had a dedicated group of individuals and families whose support has been critical to people living with mental illness in the Washington, DC metro area. Isabel would like to see that circle of support expand.

“Save December 17th for Woodley House’s 18th annual movie benefit, a special advanced screening of Unbroken from Universal Pictures,” Isabel said. Directed by Angelina Jolie, it is based on the best-selling book by Washingtonian Laura Hillenbrand and tells a truly remarkable story.

“The movie benefit is an excellent way to celebrate the commitment of the Washington, DC community to Woodley House. There is no other organization quite like Woodley House, focused on mental illness and housing and supportive services.

“And what makes Woodley House so special is its commitment to treating each person as an individual with no cookie-cutter notion of what they need. We offer people a continuum of care from crisis care to semi-independent living with the goal of getting people reintegrated into the community. Woodley House treats its residents with dignity and respect. Woodley House wants residents to participate in the decision-making process as to what is best for them. It is a profound model.”