Through our panels with President Price, Mayor Schewel, and other key figures within the Durham community, our DukeEngage program has sought to understand and analyze the key forces affecting the city. Gentrification, affordable housing, and access to education have been hot topics. However, I think we often overlook the central aspect of these forces: people. We discuss these broad phenomena, but frequently forget the human cost of economic development. Through my partnership with Threshold, I’ve interacted with the most neglected population of Durham – the mentally ill.
Threshold is a non-profit which serves the mentally-ill citizens of Durham. Most of Threshold’s members hail from the poorest neighborhoods of East Durham; they lack access to sustainable employment, public transportation, and education. Threshold seeks to improve the lifestyle of the mentally ill by providing job training and networking services for its members who are willing to work. For those who cannot work, Threshold hopes to provide a sense of community and purpose through its clubhouse-style structure. For the past few weeks, I’ve been teaching computer skills at Threshold. Though my time at Threshold has been brief, it’s been an incredibly meaningful experience.
To be honest, I was slightly nervous when I was assigned to work at Threshold through DukeEngage. I was expecting an institutional environment similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The members at Threshold are some of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. I’ve only been at Threshold for a short time, but I’m treated with the same respect and warmth that one would afford to an old friend. I’m continually amazed by the deep sense of purpose the members derive from seemingly simple tasks. Last week, Ms. Elaine, a little 68-year-old woman, ran up to me and gleefully shoved a piece of paper in my face. I looked at the paper, upon which a hastily-scribbled “Elaine” was written. She looked at me with a sense of pure joy and exclaimed, “I wrote my name!” To me, these moments are the greatest aspect of working at Threshold. Most of us take actions such as sweeping a floor, making a sandwich, or even writing a name for granted. However, these actions are important to the members at Threshold; they prove that no matter how bad their illness may be, they can still live and work. It truly puts our lives into perspective.
In a few weeks, I’ll travel to Durham, England, where I’ll be partnered with another clubhouse-style nonprofit which serves the mentally-ill. However, I’ll always treasure the time I’ve spent at Threshold. I’ve learned that the mentally ill are more than just a label. They’re generous, hardworking, and ambitious. In short, they’re just people, like you or me.
(Also, some therapy dogs visited Threshold last week. Here’s a pic for your enjoyment.)