HOW TO START AND GROW AN SA GROUP
By Margery Wakefield
In Denver, Colorado
I honestly don’t remember how I first heard of SA. My memory is not 100% because of all the meds I have taken over the years for my schizophrenia. But somehow, about ten years ago, I came to know about SA.
The next thing I remember is going to an SA conference in Michigan, where I learned how to run a group, and I met Joanne Verbanic for the first time on an elevator. The conference was great, but what I remember most about it was that they shut down the Big Boy restaurant near our hotel one night so that the SA attendees could have a dinner. Now, if you’ve never been in a room with 100 or so schizophrenics all having a good time, then you’ve missed a very interesting experience! It was fun.
When I came back to Denver, I was determined to start an SA group. At about this time, Larry A, called me and told me about another woman in Denver who also wanted to start SA in Denver. Her name was G. and we soon joined up together.
The first step was to find a place to meet. I think G. solved that problem. Anyway, we found out that the Mental Health Center on Dickinson Place was centrally located. Even better, they offered us the use of a room at night free of charge. We jumped at the opportunity. So, SA Denver was formed.
Next, we printed up flyers. I went to Walmart and found some bright, neon colored paper and bought three packages of it, then drew up a flyer and headed to Kinko’s to have it typeset and printed off on the colored paper. So far, G. and I paid for everything ourselves, but since I was working, I didn’t mind.
We hung the flyers everywhere we could think of: the mental health center where we were to meet, other mental health centers around the city, clinics, grocery stores, coffee houses, etc. I went around Denver with the flyers, some thumbtacks and some scotch tape and just hung the flyers wherever I could.
At first, the meetings consisted of just G. and myself. Instead of meeting in the big empty room at the mental health center, we frequently went to the nearby Village Inn, where we would have coffee or tea and wonder if our group was EVER going to grow.
Then, one night, a gentleman named B. joined us. His ready sense of humor immediately changed the dynamic of our little group. Soon after H. (female)and L. (male) increased our number to five. We were growing, and that was exciting!
We placed some ads for SA in local, free newspapers, announcing our meeting time and place. As a result P. (male) joined the group. In those days we ran the meetings by the book – the Blue Book. We didn’t vary things much. But then, D. (female) joined up, but complained that the format was always the same. So I said, OK, and we began to take some liberties with the pre-printed format, using the hour more for sharing and less for just reading the same things in the Blue Book over and over at each meeting. We started reading some of the other things in the Blue Book, and also some of the personal stories. It’s amazing what is contained in that book!
As the first year or so passed, other members came and went, but about three quarters of the people who came, stayed. A camaraderie began to develop among the members of the group. New members were made to feel welcome, and we freely shared advice and humor about the various challenges of our illness. It was beginning to feel like a family.
Another successful action for us was to visit the local hospital social workers, especially the psychiatric social workers. We went on these visits by appointment and in pairs, and brought a stack of flyers with us to give to the social workers. This did bring in an occasional new member.
I decided that it was time to let the professionals in the community, the Denver metro area, know about our group. One of our members, L. (male), was a computer genius. I am sure there is one of these in every group. So I went through the Yellow Pages and collected the names and phone numbers of the 110 or so psychiatrists in Denver and suburbs. H. called each one of these psychiatrists and got their addresses. We then had L. enter the addresses on his computer and print out a set of labels. I drafted a letter and enclosed two SA flyers, and we bought the stamps and did our first mailing.
It worked. A few more members showed up. So we decided to do the same thing for all the psychotherapists (92) and psychologists (220) in Denver. It was expensive because of the postage needed, so I realized we were going to have to have some source of income.
So we had the first SA bake sale at the mental health center, in the foyer. I got donations of baked goods from a local bakery, Entenmann’s, from our nearby grocery store called King Soopers, from Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, and from Einstein Brother’s bagel store. We found out that if we took signed letters with brochures and flyers and SARDAA’s tax-ID#, we could get gift cards from both the grocery store and from the nearby COSTCO.
A week before the bake sale, we used the group time to make two giant posters, with crayons and markers and posterboard donated by King Soopers. We hung one poster in the foyer of the mental health center, and one in the break room upstairs.
Our first bake sale was a success, and we were about $300 richer.
What to do with the money? One thing was to pay for more stamps to complete the mailings. And with the rest, we started having pizza nights. The pizza nights were successful in bringing out the troups. We also tried movie nights with popcorn. But these were not so successful. For many of the members, including myself, they simply demanded too much concentration, so movie nights were soon abandoned.
About five years ago, we had our First Annual SA Picnic in July. This has become an annual tradition. We decided that we would invite family and friends to the picnic, and this has become one of our two open events each year, the other being our Annual Christmas or Holiday party. Parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends – all were welcome. COSTCO again donated $25 worth of picnic food, and the grocery store did the same. Again, with signed letters and the correct paperwork. The rest of the money came from our small reserve fund. The picnics and the holiday party are great fun for everyone. At the picnics, my cousin and her husband have volunteered each year to be the grillmaster and the hostess, and like everyone else who gets to know the group, they have kind of adopted us.
I believe that in addition to the serious business involved in a successful SA group, there should also be some fun – and laughter. I can honestly say that we have both in our group. Sometimes I think we have too much fun! People walking by our door on group night must wonder: What’s going on in there???
Sometimes, when our funds are low, we have a potluck, where everyone brings something to eat or drink. These always result in too much food, and are quite popular and successful.
About two years ago, I was cleaning out the closets in my apartment, and I thought, “Why not have a swap meet? “ I announced it to the group, and we did it! Everyone brought their “junk” from home and we put all the stuff on the conference table in our meeting room. Then after a few seconds, everyone went to the table to pick out their “treasure” from someone else’s “trash.” By the end of the night, the table was clear, except for the few things which no one wanted, which were donated to Goodwill. But everyone went home with something.
We are still evolving as a group. Sometimes, I think the group takes on a life of its own. Now we have a coffee group on Saturdays, which was initiated by G., and we also have a walking group on Saturdays as well, weather permitting. Many of the members find walking extremely therapeutic, and doing it as a group is even more fun.
So, these are some thoughts on starting and growing a successful SA group. This is not the only way to get a group going; this is just the way we did it.
I hope that these ideas are helpful to someone just starting up a group. It’s been a LOT of work, but, in the end, well worth it. If you persevere, I think you will find that you have built a community of friends.
We call ourselves family….
February 24th, 2013