It’s been a mix of excitement and stress over the past few weeks for Stephanie Appleby.
The executive director for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness got engaged in late August only to have to temporarily close the NAMI Southwest Missouri Inc. Hope Center a couple of weeks later due to a vandalism incident. She also is working on plans to expand the organization’s coverage to Joplin, from where she currently commutes daily to Springfield.
While wooden boards cover one of the front windows that was broken last month, the 819 N. Boonville Ave. center reopened Oct. 2 to resume in-person services to those living with mental illness, as well as their families. The agency continued offering support virtually and through community outreach during the roughly two-week closure. Appleby says the vandalism incident was the second since the nonprofit moved in late 2021 to the building it purchased for $515,000 from fellow nonprofit The Victim Center Inc.
Appleby says the temporary closure was meant to send the signal of “enough is enough.”
“If you abuse this building, it’s not going to be there, which stinks,” she says. “You have to do that even to the ones that didn’t do anything wrong, and they have to suffer. We’re hoping it will kind of form a sense of community, where they will take pride in the building.”
The local chapter is one of the of roughly 600 NAMI affiliates nationally, and all services to clients are free. These include support groups, educational classes, art therapy and a limited food pantry. The organization provides peer support, Appleby says, meaning all employed by NAMI Southwest Missouri are people living with a mental illness or a family member of one. Appleby says she previously was homebound for 14 years with agoraphobia, which is a fear of open spaces. That was before she began working for NAMI in 2014. She’s been the local affiliate’s leader since 2019.
“You don’t get the clinical side of it here,” she says, noting the nonprofit serves 26 counties. “You get more of ‘I’ve been there, this is a nonjudgmental environment, and these are the things that worked for me.’ While we can’t relate maybe with being homeless, we can relate to that feeling of different or unwanted. It’s that basic human need to feel loved and accepted. That’s what the beauty of this place is. There’s so much acceptance.”
NAMI has worked with The Gathering Tree since before the latter nonprofit started its Eden Village tiny homes communities, the first of which opened in 2018. There are 55 homes in the two developments with a third planned to begin construction by the end of the year, said Eden Village Chief Visionary Officer Nate Schlueter.
“As we opened the village, we were able to further expand our relationship with NAMI,” he says. “Today, NAMI has our applications and brings up applicants for interviews when we have homes open up. On a weekly basis, it looks more like peer support for the current residents.”
Schlueter estimates over half of Eden Village residents have been helped by NAMI. Some of that aid comes in the form of grief counseling, he says.
“It really becomes a nonprofit partner we can rely on heavily for the things we’re not skilled at or don’t offer,” he says. “We can now offer those in our communities because of that relationship.”
Noting many of the organization’s clients are or have been homeless, Appleby says the move from its seven-year home in the CoxHealth Medical Tower at 1443 N. Robberson Ave. has increased its visibility.
“We have expanded our reach so much here. We are serving quadruple the amount of people than we did at Med Tower,” she says, adding NAMI aids roughly 60 people daily at the 5,470-square-foot building, which is nearly double its former space.
“Because we were in (CoxHealth Medical Tower), some thought that we were part of CoxHealth, so there was that barrier, too,” she says. “Now, finding our independence has been great.”
Still, Appleby acknowledges that purchasing the building would have been impossible without $100,000 from an anonymous donor. As for its operating budget, state funding from the Missouri Department of Mental Health covers a healthy chunk of the nonprofit’s annual operating budget. This fiscal year, the state agency funded $92,000 of its $275,000 budget. Next year, the DMH total will be $144,000, she says, estimating NAMI’s budget will increase to $359,000. That’s factoring in an increase in money raised through fundraisers and donations.
“We never know how much we’ll bring in annually,” she says. “Whenever we get a big influx of money, it seems something tragic has happened.”
The organization’s largest annual fundraiser, Neon Night Run, which brings attention to suicide prevention, drew 500 participants in late August to Rutledge-Wilson Farm Park. While Appleby says financials are still being tabulated, she expects this year’s event will surpass the $15,000 it has raised in recent years.
Down the road
Following the closure of a Joplin NAMI affiliate around a year ago, Appleby says NAMI Southwest Missouri has a goal to open a brick-and-mortar location there sometime in 2024. Donations will be sought to make the building a reality, she says, adding she’ll ultimately split time between there and Springfield.
“I just drive back and forth, and obviously when I get things going more there, I’ll spend a couple days in Joplin and then three days here,” she says. “That’s how I’ll work that.
“I feel like we’ve grown this agency so much, and I’m excited to do that there too.”
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