—by Sara Wilson, marketing director

Throughout the United Way of Story County (UWSC) LIVE UNITED campaign, this column is highlighting different programs in the community impact areas of education, income and health to give readers an idea of the work being done locally.

A significant amount invested in UWSC’s impact area of health supports the Mental Health Wellness Center, located downtown Ames, to give people with mental illness a place to go for socialization, educational programs and activities. Knowing that access to mental health care is important, UWSC took the lead on exploring the possibility of establishing the center, a project piloted by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Central Iowa. The Wellness Center began in August 2011, and now averages 200 visits each month.

"Mental health depends on more than just medication and therapy," says NAMI’s Executive Director Deb Niehof. "The Wellness Center provides daily programs that affect mental health in a variety of ways, including art therapy, writing groups, weekly support groups, physical exercise, nutrition and more."

Niehof also said coming to the center helps people get out of the isolation that can contribute to worsening symptoms. Being around other people who understand what an individual is experiencing is a major benefit for those who visit.

"When one of our participants started coming to the Wellness Center, his anxiety was so bad that he couldn’t participate in any activities but would sit alone in the quiet room," recalls Niehof. "He came because the center was a safe place, and he knew it was important for him to be around people. Eventually, as he felt more comfortable, he took part in the weekly writing group. Over time, he has become a facilitator for the writing group, serves on our board of directors and recently shared his story in a public setting."

Last year, 92 different individuals living with mental illness participated in programs at the Wellness Center; they came from seven different communities in Story County, as well as Iowa State University. The programs are all led by volunteers – both participants at the center and members of the community at large.

Donations to United Way of Story County help sustain this important piece of mental health care in our community.

Niehof says, "Money from United Way allows the center to exist! We got started because of a gift from the United Way of Story County Endowment Fund to do a six-month pilot project. The money we receive now funds rent and utilities, salary for the coordinator and supplies for the programs."

United Way of Story County is a strategic leader in building county-wide partnerships to identify needs and to develop, support, and evaluates effective human services, especially in the areas of education, income and health, for our diverse community.