History

Joan Doniger

Joan Doniger, Woodley House Founder 1958

“Every day out of a hospital is a good day.” (Joan Doniger)

The history of Woodley House began with its founder, an extraordinary woman named Joan Doniger. She was working at St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital as an occupational therapist in 1956 where she recognized a problem that no one seemed to be addressing. At that time, psychiatric hospitals housed a wide range of patients and many exhibited severe mental illness, but others displayed a wide variety of issues far less severe. Joan began to realize that not everyone needed to be hospitalized, especially not for such extended periods of time, but many had nowhere else to go. She saw that those who were institutionalized for long periods and then sent home to unprepared families resulted in frequent returns to the hospital in a revolving door pattern because they just weren’t prepared for community living.

Joan envisioned another option – therapeutic housing in a neighborhood setting with a family-like environment where residents could learn to live with their illness, set personal goals and work toward recovery. After careful research and input from community leaders, she wrote a preliminary plan that formed the framework for her idea and has remained the heart of Woodley House programs for more than 50 years. She described a place where residents were expected to “live within the rules and boundaries laid down by our society” and where they would have a large role in controlling their own lives.

With seed funding from the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation, Joan established the first mental health halfway house in the District (and one of the very first in the country) in 1958, creating another option and link between hospitalization and independent living. First known as the Potomac Residence Club (its non-profit sponsor), Woodley House was introducedĀ that first year with a total of 11 residents. Joan funded much of it herself, until 1961 when she received a demonstration grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. This grant produced academic and societal recognition of Woodley House, resulting in two books about halfway houses, and increased referrals and outside support. This success allowed Joan to hire paid staff, including Edee Maeda as co-director. Edee was an innovative and creative spirit, introducing many new concepts, including the celebration of Beethoven’s Birthday on December 16th as our Woodley House Holiday Party. It was, and is, a celebration of the season, the arts and Woodley House’s family. Edee became director when Joan was tragically killed in 1972 in a freak auto accident while visiting New York with her young daughter. Joan’s death was a blow to Woodley House and all who knew her, but Woodley House lives on as a legacy to her pioneering spirit.

Woodley House is very grateful for the friendship and support of so many who have helped make it the inspiring organization that it is today. In 1997, board member Mary Margaret Valenti decided that we needed an annualĀ ‘signature event’ to raise both needed funds and friends for Woodley House. With great help from her husband, Jack Valenti (head of the Motion Pictures Association of America, MPAA at the time), Mary Margaret secured the film ‘Titanic’ as our very first Woodley House Annual Movie Benefit, with the reception preceding the screening held at the Vice President’s home! This annual event … dinner and a movie … has continued. Last year we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of our Movie Benefit, honoring its founder, Mary Margaret and her family for their years of devotion to Woodley House and the people we serve.

Since opening our doors in 1958, Woodley House has remained constant to our core values and mission … helping men and women with mental illness live full and healthy lives with dignity. From our first year with 11 residents, Woodley House has grown to serve more than 300 individuals a year, working with, not simply for, our residents to reach greater independence.