Washing dishes and cooking lunch are among a long list of responsibilities 36-year-old Susan Thomas has at the Gainesville Opportunity Center.
The activities may seem simple, but for Thomas, they represent a major transformation in her life. Thomas has schizoaffective disorder, in which she experiences symptoms of both schizophrenia and mood disorders.
“I create these alternate realities,” Thomas said. “I have a hard time getting out of it and I know they’re not real but like, sometimes for a second I might like get so caught up in the reality that I just think like, ‘Oh, this is actually happening.’ Then I realized, no, it’s not real.”
Before coming to the center four years ago, Thomas said she had a hard time interacting with people and spent most of her days in bed.
Now, she wakes up at 7 a.m. four days a week and takes 3 different busses to get to the center’s clubhouse, where she’s learned various skills. She’s also made friends there who have become her main support system and a distraction from her mental illness.
“I’m pretty busy and I interact with people helping with that stuff,” she said. “It keeps my mind occupied, so it helps a lot.”
Thomas said she has seen a lot of improvements in her life and is especially proud of being tidier.
Lee Brooks, an employee at the center, has worked with Thomas for the past two years. He said one of the biggest changes he’s seen in Thomas is her boosted confidence.
“I think the first time I actually met her,” Brooks said, she was “very soft spoken and now, she comes in, she wears vibrant colors. That reflects a lot.”
Brooks works with Thomas in the kitchen and has taught her cooking skills that she can take home. Thomas recently cooked a successful chicken dinner for herself. It was a dish Brooks taught her to make: brown rice and chicken, and she followed the recipe guidance he had provided.
“She said, ‘I ended up preparing the chicken the way that you said, and that went well,'” Brooks said, “but just the fact for her bringing that back to me, made me feel really good.”
The center’s director, Brett Buell, said Thomas traveled all the way to South Carolina as its member representative to attend a two-week accreditation training for the clubhouse. The Gainesville Opportunity Center has had non-profit tax-exempt status since 2007 and disclosed an operational budget of about $134,000 in its most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
“For her to see another functional clubhouse and how it works, then she’s got something to bring back to the club, as far as leading by example and in doing things,” Buell said.
Buell said a major accomplishment that sets Thomas apart from other members is that she has been working at Goodwill for four years.
“People that have chronic mental illness, not only have a harder time finding jobs, but they have a harder time keeping jobs. And some of the supports that we’ve been able to give her here have helped her be confident enough to keep that job,” Buell said.
With a renewed sense of confidence and drive, Thomas said she won’t let her mental illness define her. She plans to finish a general associate’s degree at Santa Fe College in the spring.