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Aug 2001 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Walking Through the
Open Door

By Beverly J. Stroup

The OPEN DOOR ART STUDIO, Recovery through the Arts, first opened its doors October 6, 1997, in Maplewood, Missouri. We had received a $5000 grant from the mother of a friend of mine who had died as a result of severe mental illness — suicide. The idea of the studio first came to me in 1992. I was going through a very bad time: a divorce, subsequent bankruptcy, trying to raise a 13-year-old daughter, loss of my job, and then hospitalization for major recurrent depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. I have a biological predisposition to depression from my father's side of the family and it is triggered by stress. Obviously, I was under a lot of stress. Anyway, when I began to feel better I began schooling to become an art psychotherapist, and did very well part time, but Vocational Rehab, which was paying for my education, required I begin to take a full course load at a certain point. Because of the extreme fatigue the depression causes I could not continue with my education; however, I did begin to write to companies asking for donations of supplies and telling them of my idea. They were very supportive, and sent amazing things to begin the studio. I have to laugh when I think back at my daughter getting frustrated with me storing all of this stuff in our small apartment. She is a very neat, organized person. It would really frustrate her. I had to keep reassuring her there was a reason for it. I don't think she believed there ever would really be a studio. I don't know that I believed it either, but I felt guided to continue writing letters and working toward that goal. Over the next few years it did evolve into a reality when we opened in Maplewood in 1997.

From the 650-square-foot storefront in Maplewood, we moved to a 2800-square-foot historic building in the Lemp Cherokee Antique District in September 2000. It has a beautiful courtyard and reminds me of my favorite place to visit — New Orleans. Our building is on the neighborhood's official "Walking Tour" — the Old Cigar Store, built in 1898.

Because of code violations, we were not allowed to open until February 2001. Mr. Dale Besterfield and his friends saved the day by donating time and energy — about $12,000 worth — to put in a handicapped-accessible bathroom, parking lot, wheelchair ramp, and landscaping. We are indebted to them for we could not have opened had they not come forward and done this work for us.

Our members (clients) feel a real sense of pride coming here. It is homey and peaceful. We always have music playing — usually classical, sometimes Enya or something like that. They create some awesome things and feel free to express themselves here where they cannot elsewhere. There are all levels of abilities but the main idea is that they come and relax and have fun and not worry about cost or anything else.

We have clients referred to us by psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists; major hospitals such as BJC, St. John's, and the ARC; agencies like Places for People, Independence Center, NAMI of St. Louis, The Empowerment Center, the Self Help Center, and Mental Health Association.

We are very fortunate that for the past two years we have received mini-grants from the Mental Health Association to help cover operating expenses. This has been such a relief. Without this we probably could not have continued. Before we had to always hold our breath from month to month. We are still dependent on donations for everything else and still all volunteer run at this time. We have 200 members. I am the sole administrator and office person. It becomes burdensome at times but I am hoping I will be able to hire someone to assist me in the future and possibly get a grant for part-time salaries for other positions also.

We have a small gift shop in the front of the first floor filled with odds and ends, all donated. The proceeds help us purchase art supplies. It's a hodge-podge of art, white elephant items, crafts, candy, recycled jewelry, etc. Some people come in and walk right back out, but others come in and love it, milling around, and coming back again and again. Our prices are very reasonable. Some are even equal to garage-sale prices.

The Open Door (ODAS) mission statement is that we are a unique agency dedicated to making the arts accessible to adults and children living with mental illness in all its forms by creating a sustainable art space that promotes recovery and increased self-esteem through expression and acceptance in a non-clinical setting.

We are unique in that we do not duplicate what others offer in the community. We offer free art materials, workshops, open studio, crafts, outings, and other art-related activities in a relaxed, non-judgmental environment.

A parallel goal: To fight the stigma of mental illness. It's bad enough to have mental illness in any form, but to be made to feel guilty about it compounds the problem. Our society is often cruel to the mentally ill. Our mission is to also get across to the community that mental illness is not a fault. It's an illness just as cancer and diabetes are illnesses. There are many factors such as genetics, biochemical imbalances, developmental and external illnesses, medication, etc. that play into it. As a breast cancer survivor (invasive) I can say without hesitation that my cancer, with all the chemo and radiation, was easier to deal with than my bouts of depression ever were.

Since Bi-State has cut its schedules it is going to be more difficult for our members to come to the studio. Most of our members live on very modest incomes. Some come from North St. Louis. Many have difficulty even leaving their homes or apartments because of their illnesses. Because of this one of our main goals is to acquire a van or bus and driver so that we can pick up members and bring them to the studio every week. So many are afraid to leave their homes because of anxiety disorders or paranoia. A van would make them feel safe.

Our current needs range from the massive to the mundane: a van, volunteers, financial donations, someone to hook up the dryer in our basement.

On October 6, 2001, we will celebrate our 4th Anniversary at the Studio. We invite everyone to come and participate in the activities. Open House will be held from 1 pm to 9 pm that day. There will be art demonstrations, music, an art exhibit of members' work, a silent auction, a community collage (bring something from home to attach!), children's activities and snacks. We're looking for donations of items for the silent auction. If you'd like to donate or volunteer give us a call.


Bev Stroup is the founder and Executive Director of the Open Door Art Studio, 2111 Cherokee St., in St. Louis, 314-781-6754.

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