Dancing with the St. Louis Stars professional partners David Nyemchek, Steve Brockman, Lucy Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzgerald and David Nyemchek

Whether it’s the cha-cha, tango or two-step, prominent members of the community are dusting off their dancing shoes to help a much-needed organization. On Saturday, Jan. 26, the fifth annual Dancing with the St. Louis Stars event will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis to benefit Independence Center, a community-based rehabilitation program for adults with severe mental illness. “Independence Center gives hope to people who might otherwise face hopelessness,” says last year’s dance competition winner Ron Kruszewski, CEO of Stifel Nicolaus, the presenting sponsor of the event.

The Center’s executive director, Mike Keller, says the issue of mental illness is more common than one may think: One in four families is affected by it at the first-relationship level. “There’s still a stigma that surrounds mental illness. People may want to protect their loved ones, so families don’t talk about it very much; and if you’re not talking about it with your own family, you’re not talking about it with your friends and neighbors. It perpetuates the stigma.”

Fortunately, 31 years ago, a group of St. Louisans decided to address the issue. Members of the group had adult children who were living with mental illness, and they saw the great need for support services to help their children stay out of hospitals and become participating members of the community. With the help of its first executive director, Bob Harvey, Independence Center was established. The program centers around the Clubhouse Model of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, Keller explains. “The philosophy says that people with mental illness—like all people—need to know that they are somewhere where they are needed, wanted and expected. And when they get there, there will be adult activity going on.”

At the Clubhouse, members meet one of four diagnoses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe clinical depression or schizoaffective disorder. Within its Central West End location, the Center provides assistance with wellness programming, employment and housing. Maintaining one’s health is crucial—and a struggle—for someone suffering from mental illness, Keller says. “They have much more severe primary-care concerns than the general population because, ironically, the medications that keep them in balance mentally take a terrible toll on their bodies.”

A key component of Independence Center’s focus is on helping people get back into the workforce, as those living with severe mental illness have the highest rate of unemployment of any disability, Keller notes. Through partnerships with area businesses like Stifel Nicolaus, Bryan Cave, Wells Fargo and Homegoods, Clubhouse members are provided transitional and supportive employment positions. “We’re trying to provide people with purpose,” Kruszewski says. “But we’re not just giving away jobs—Independence Center employees are very hard-working and they do a great job.”

The Center also has 71 units of housing for those living with mental illness, and it assists up to 350 members each year with various housing issues, as many are living in marginal neighborhoods. At the Clubhouse, members volunteer alongside a small staff for various positions at the center’s resale shop, dining room and flower shop, among others. “It shows the members that they are, in fact, needed. We couldn’t run the place without them,” Keller says. Separate from the Clubhouse, the organization provides outpatient day treatment and a psychiatric clinic, as well.

Helping 245 members on an average day and 1,500 individuals yearly, Independence Center must raise approximately $800,000 annually to help meet the need. The Dancing with the St. Louis Stars event is its biggest fundraiser. With a goal of $250,000, this year’s event, chaired by Arnold and Hazel Donald, will pit BJC Healthcare president/CEO Steve Lipstein, The Laclede Group president/CEO Suzanne Sitherwood, Project Runway designer Laura Kathleen Planck, Kranzberg Family Foundation president Mary Ann Srenco, Bethesda Health Group president/CEO Joe Brinker and Independence Center member Terri Hodges against each other in a dance competition with professional partners. “In dancing, you need a great partner to help guide you through challenging steps—just like Independence Center helps guide adults to gain life skills and confidence,” Sitherwood notes. “This event is a wonderful way to help support its mission.”

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