BY RICK KAZMER
United Way of the Laurel Highlands
A tour of the historic building, that around a century or more ago served as the Johnstown mayor's home, reveals exquisite architecture.
Black bathroom tile, high ceilings with intricate woodwork and poured plaster stair rails are some of the unique features inside the home.
But it's the modern details that reveal the more personal story of the building's current purpose. On the hallway walls are pictures of people from the city who stop by to learn about art, to exercise and to socialize. Their artwork, as intricate and meaningful as the wood and plaster moldings surrounding it, are clues to the personal stories that are revealed by the work now happening at 514 Somerset Street.
It's part of the Peer Empowerment Network's Drop In Center, a program supported by the United Way of the Laurel Highlands. The center is a safety net for vulnerable residents with mental health issues.
It not only provides a safe place for people to spend the day, it's also a direct link to services so they can start on a path to a more stable life. The center has visitors of all ages, from 18 to 60 or older.
Cambria County has a 490:1 ratio in people to mental health providers, according to the 2021 County Health Rankings for Pennsylvania.
“We are trying to help in the best way we can, by offering socialization, education and support in addition to providing an awareness of treatments and resources in the community “ Executive Director, Maryann George said.
That could be counseling, medical care or a program to help provide sustainable housing.
When the center is running -- the facility has had to take some periodic hiatuses because of the pandemic -- it typically has up to 100 people a day stop in from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The center has an AmeriCorps staff member, funded by the United Way, who helps in connecting with visitors to learn more about them and their needs.
Some have severe mental health struggles, while others just need some advice and a direction.
“Oftentimes we make the assumption that people know even the basics. But you can’t know what you don’t know," George said, adding that “you must meet people where they are.”
Sometimes simple around-the-house advice, including how to cook a meal using fresh vegetables or how to fix minor plumbing problems, improves a life.
Other times people need referred to more specific and detailed programs. Agency social workers often visit with their clients at the center.
In one room, a group of people might be playing pool, while an exercise session is happening next door. In an area where artwork is hanging from the walls, someone might be listening to music as they work through a mental health concern.
During the most recent pause in services due to the increase in COVID cases, George and her team are giving rooms a fresh coat of paint. One area is being turned into a salon, where visitors will be able to develop skills, or enjoy a session with a professional stylist.
The goal, always, is to find a way to connect, according to Melissa Joseph, the director of CFST. She collects a lot of the data that helps to guide the programming. She also builds relationships with the people who drop in.
“I enjoy seeing the success that comes when people begin connecting with their peers, treatments and services they need,” Joseph said, echoing the comment George made about the necessity of “meeting people where they are”
A word to describe the center might be revitalization. The former mayor of Johnstown likely never thought his home -- a one-time funeral parlor -- would later be a location where thousands of people seek refuge from personal mental health problems that can be hard for others to understand.
"One of us will make that connection," George said.
She recalled one long-time center visitor who had trouble maintaining a stable life.
He has since died.
George said it wasn't until near the end of his life that he realized the importance of what was going on around him. It was during a Halloween party, and despite his illness, he was dancing and enjoying the festivities.
He was happy.
"I get it," he told George as he was dancing. "This is good, it's good."