2017-12-14 / News

Common Connection Club to reopen under new name

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Common Connection Club will reopen next week with a new name and philosophy, but some former members have chosen to stay away.

The Biddeford Peer Support Center will host an open house 1 to 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 22 at its new home on 15 York St. in downtown Biddeford. The center will be a place for anyone to receive help from a peer, someone who has also experienced a mental health challenge or is in recovery from substance abuse.

Valerie Compagna, manager of marketing and communications for Maine Behavioral Healthcare, said anyone interested in learning more about the center is welcome to attend. Maine Behavioral Healthcare closed Common Connection Club, which was located at 32 Alfred St., on Sept. 29 due to changes in state funding requirements. An interim location has not been open in the meantime, but individuals seeking help were welcome at the Ross Center on Alfred Street.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services along with the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health administers funds for peer support centers throughout the state. Randy Morrison, director of peer services for Maine Behavioral Healthcare, said funding requirements from the state were part of the reason for the change in location and support model.

“The focus will be more on recovery, wellness and vocational rehabilitation,” he said. “We need to have additional group rooms, conference rooms and training rooms. We figured it was an opportunity to look in the community for something that might better fit our needs and we found the location on York Street.”

He said state officials wanted to make services provided by peer support centers across the state more uniform.

“Each of the centers, which were originally social clubs, operated very differently,” he said. “Some had a recovery focus … and others were primarily social. I imagine the state wanted to formalize the structure of them all and operate them in similar ways with clearly identified goals.”

The change in policy, however, meant that some individuals were left behind. Common Connection Club’s former Operations Manager Susan Simpson had worked there for 17 years and was laid off when the club closed at the end of September. She said Common Connection was a social club but that members were very active in the community. She said members went on field trips to Red Sox games, sold wreaths around Christmastime and grew vegetables in their garden during summer.

“People had a misconception of the Common Connection Club,” Simpson said. “They should have come in and seen what they do. It was good and not a bunch of homeless people hanging around outside drinking.”

One reason Simpson was let go was because she had not undergone intentional peer support training, which is a requirement for all employees and volunteers at the new peer support center. She said she would have taken the training, but it was only offered in Augusta and she was unable to travel back and forth during the week.

Simpson said that while the Ross Center was open for people seeking help, many refused to go.

“The members were disheartened with the place closing and me losing my job,” she said.

Since then, Simpson has continued to help those in need. She said she took one woman who is a veteran grocery shopping and brought a book to a man who was homeless. She said former club members go to Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center but it’s only open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“These people with mental health and substance issues in the streets have nowhere to go,” Simpson said. “A lot of them are calling me because they have no one to turn to. I’m trying my best to satisfy minor needs for them. These are people I’ve known for 17 years. The club has been open for close to 40 years. They know me the best of anyone. They looked to me when the club closed. I didn’t know what to do with them. They’re still calling me. I don’t have the heart to say, ‘don’t bother me.’ I’m helping them the best I can.”

Angela Tillson, a volunteer manager at Common Connection Club for 15 years, said Maine Behavioral Healthcare could have handled Simpson’s situation better. Tillson stopped volunteering when the club shut down in September and does not plan to join the new peer support center.

“We were told Susan would be involved in the transition of the club to the new location,” she said. “That she would be involved in all aspects and nothing would change. They shut it down and got rid of Sue. They let her go and lied to us. They didn’t back her up to complete the trainings she needed to do.”

Because of this, Tillson said she does not want to participate in any of the new programs. Regardless, she agreed a new space for peer support in the community was necessary.

“We have a lot of homeless people out in the community, hanging out downtown,” Tillson said. “They have nowhere to go besides Seeds (of Hope) and when Seeds closes that’s it. I think we needed a change because of the people around us and upstairs. If something went wrong club members were blamed for a lot of things. We can’t control what people do after dark and the club is closed. We can’t control who comes through the parking lot.”

Tillson said club members were blamed for trash and vandalism within the vicinity of the club. However, she said club members often volunteered in local soup kitchens and food pantries but never received recognition for their work from the community. Nor does she feel Simpson received enough recognition for her work either.

“It was like we were a community, a family,” Tillson said. “We did a lot for members and Sue did a lot for us.”

Morrison said he wouldn’t comment on why Simpson was let go.

“The HR department looked at the new programming job description and made a decision,” he said. “Folks may be uneasy about change. They should come back see what it is offered. Give it a shot. They are always welcome back. We try to be as inclusive as possible.”

Intentional peer support will govern the new center’s operations according to Morrison. It is a communication tool designed to foster trust between individuals and allow them to help each other. There are four components of discussion for the required intentional peer support training: connection, worldview, mutuality and moving toward.

“Peers are people that are learning to be experts in their own wellness,” Morrison said. “Peer support specialists are there to be in a relationship and learn with you. It’s a different power dynamic that allows each person to both have needs. Just because someone is experiencing a significant mental health challenge doesn’t mean they’re not good at supporting someone else.”

The center will have one full-time and one parttime paid staff members.

Despite being unable to work at the new center, Simpson said she’ll continue to help those who reach out to her. She said the homeless have been coming to Biddeford for many years and deserve respect.

“They should be honored for the hard work they’ve done over the years, not frowned upon,” she said. “That didn’t happen, which is okay. We’ll move on.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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