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“What are you doing this summer?”

Since early spring, I’ve been confronted with this question more times than I can count. “DukeEngage-Durham,” I would reply, along with a short explanation for friends and family outside the Duke bubble, “an immersive service experience split between Durham, North Carolina and its sister city in England.” Once I learned that I would be working at Threshold for the domestic stage of our program, I also began to include a summary of the clubhouse and the important mental health services it provides to members of the Durham community. Like the curious people in my life, I had questions of my own about what I would be doing this summer, with the most important relating to my purpose in the program. What would my impact be? I wondered. How am I going to use this opportunity to make a real difference? I felt confident that I would be able to answer these questions soon after beginning the program in May.

Over a month has gone by since we started this endeavor and I still don’t have a solid answer.

What does it really mean to make a difference? Misguided as it may be, I think most of us, whether we realize it or not, have this expectation that we will create a lasting physical change — a tangible product of our effort — as a result of our DukeEngage experience. Whether it involves repairing medical equipment, creating a new arts education program, or leading conservation efforts, there is this notion that physical sustainability is the only indicator of a meaningful DukeEngage experience. We were warned about the inaccuracies of this kind of self-evaluation, but that doesn’t remove the thought entirely. With this mindset, it can be easy to forget about the plethora of ways that our service experiences have impacted our communities, and perhaps most profoundly, ourselves.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Threshold has been in operation for more than 30 years and is a very well-established organization. The structured work-order day around which the clubhouse revolves has proven to be an effective tool for fostering independence and increasing overall quality of life for its members with various mental health issues. Member involvement is absolutely critical to the successful operation of the clubhouse. Working with an organization that has an effective system of skill development (and has had one for so long) presents its own unique challenges. There is a fine line between helping members complete tasks and completing tasks for them, and this has proven to be an incredibly difficult distinction at times.

At first, the temporary nature of my position in the clubhouse made it challenging to contribute in ways that felt were meaningful and necessary. Rather than focusing on a large-scale project, I moved towards becoming completely immersed in the clubhouse and directed my energy on a more personal level of service. Although I may not have a tangible “legacy” or change to leave behind from my six weeks at Threshold, I am certainly leaving as a changed person. The connections I’ve made and the relationships I’ve built with members have had an profound impact on my perspective and completely changed the way I think about mental health. Catching a glimpse into the overarching impacts of mental illness and witnessing issues regarding care and treatment firsthand has been invaluable. Although I am still grappling with the complexities of using my DukeEngage experience to make a change in the world, I am confident that it has made a change in me.