Engaging Members in Clubhouse Activities: Getting From "Will You?" to "I Want To"

by Jim Davey

One of the ever important issues of clubhouse life is: How do we engage members in our clubhouse? The clubhouse community has many challenges, one of which is the inability at times for staff to engage members, and members to engage staff.

As we are all aware, there are numerous functions of the clubhouse. We have various deadlines to meet. At meetings, members and staff apply their collective knowledge to improve our clubhouse community. The Café Unit hurriedly prepares the daily lunches and dinners. Our First Floor Unit oversees the reception and greets members and guests as they arrive. The Clerical Unit is studious in compiling stats and always ready to give tours. To say there is no shortage of work is an understatement. All these jobs, and many others, are vital to the daily operation of the clubhouse. The work could not be done without the partnership of members and staff. And yet sometimes we have trouble drawing both members and staff into the work of the house.

When I have asked members to join in the activities of the unit, they have given me various reasons why they are not interested. One member told me that he was struggling, that this made him feel too inhibited to join in the daily work. Another member informed me that, due to his lack of self-confidence, he did not want to take on more responsibility. Another member conveyed to me that he felt that the clubhouse expected too much of new members.

If we look up the word "engage" in the Oxford Reference Dictionary, we find the following definition: "to take part, occupy the attention of." A loose clubhouse translation, I think, might be "to build a genuine relationship and rapport between two people (staff and member, member and member) and to use that relationship to draw the other into clubhouse work."

I would like to reflect upon a personal experience that I perceive as supplying an example of this definition. When I first started at Progress Place two years ago, I recall how overwhelmed I was by how busy the clubhouse was. I was also impressed at how easily and naturally the people in the clubhouse community interacted with one another. The members and staff welcomed me and tried to make my transition into the clubhouse as comfortable as possible.

At approximately the same time I started, a new member started at the clubhouse. For quite some time, when he entered the clubhouse his winter coat would be tightly wrapped around his body and the draw strings of his hood pulled across his chin. He would by-pass the cloakroom and unit area and head directly to the smoking room. I noticed that he would droop over his chair, eyes transfixed on the floor, engaging no one.

I realized how vulnerable and overwhelmed he must feel, as his actions so clearly mirrored some of my own anxieties about being a new staff person. Probably because of this identification, I began to approach him. At first, I would ask him questions and he would respond with one word answers, as he maintained his focus on the floor. As time passed, and as we both began to feel more comfortable in the clubhouse, our conversations (and those he had with other members and staff) began to gain in depth and content. We were becoming comfortable with one another, and instilling confidence in each other through this growing rapport.

The new member continued to come to the clubhouse. However, now when he entered the clubhouse he would remove his winter coat and hang it in the cloakroom. Like his winter wear, you could see the layers of doubt and unease slowly being lifted. As he became more comfortable with the clubhouse surroundings, he felt ready to join the unit. He slowly became engaged in the daily unit activities.

After a year of investing in each other like this, slowly developing a genuine rapport based on shared experience and vulnerability, the member is now participating in the unit on a daily basis. He has gone on to try a Transitional Employment job, and has shared a wonderful experience with other members and staff on a trip called Boundless Adventures, which engages people in challenging physical outdoor activities. He has succeeded in building many genuine relationships within the clubhouse. As his relationships and trust have grown, his confidence has flourished. On the basis of these genuine relationships within the clubhouse, he ultimately became motivated to join in the unit activities.

When we are attempting to engage members in the daily functions of the clubhouse we have to realize that people will get involved when "they are ready." If membership is voluntary and without time limits, so should be our approach in trying to engage members into the work-ordered day. Patience is a key ingredient. Usually, members become involved because of a relationship or relationships within the clubhouse, and relationships -- when they are real -- take time. It is important to have a flexible attitude and to not force the structure of the clubhouse. The clubhouse has to bend to fit the member's needs, rather than expecting that the member should do all the bending to meet the needs of the clubhouse.

The energy and the demeanor of the staff worker, though, are extremely important if we are to engage people in the work of the clubhouse. Every task in the clubhouse, no matter how tedious we might perceive it to be, is an important component in terms of the work-ordered day. There has to be a sense of zeal and energy when approaching any job in the clubhouse. If staff convey a lackadaisical attitude towards a certain task, how can we expect the membership to get excited? Every job has to be tackled with commitment and enthusiasm, and with that comes a sense of real pride and accomplishment for everyone involved.

The flip side, though, is when we become too task-oriented. If we constantly nag the members with requests to work, we might inadvertently alienate them. The work of the clubhouse has to be rooted in the important and meaningful relationships of the clubhouse community, if it is really to engage anyone.

Another important element that staff need to remember is the importance of tapping into the member's specific strengths, talents, and abilities. I have often witnessed a member being drawn quickly and easily into some aspect of the work of the house, after a staff worker has discovered that member's specific skill or talent.

For example, if there is difficulty in the kitchen and a member with culinary skills is somewhere in the clubhouse, that member can often be drawn into the work. Once a member's abilities have been discovered, it makes engaging that member a more natural process. After finding that his or her talents and abilities are useful to the community, a sense of purpose, self-worth and confidence begin to take form.

It is often these very real needs of the clubhouse which prompt a spontaneous and natural motivational effect on a member. This often occurs when members observe that staff truly need their assistance. A member pipes in, "I know a quick recipe," and leads the way to restoring the dinner. Essential to this process is that staff reveal their vulnerabilities and their genuine need for help, and that they also convey a sense of urgency. Schedules and deadlines that need to be met often help to create an environment in which members can really experience being urgently needed.

As in most clubhouses, one of the challenges we face at Progress Place is the members who spend a lot of time in the smoking room. Our smoking room is located in the middle of the First Floor Unit on the main floor of the clubhouse. The unit is a high traffic area. The smoking room itself is20 by 15 feet and is enclosed by a plate glass door and window. From inside the smoking room, you can see the beehive of activity taking place in the unit. Having the members in the smoking room so exposed to the work being done all around seems to encourage them to be drawn into the unit activity.

A particular member pointed out to me that he was inspired to work when he was in the smoking room, watching other members doing things out in the unit. Although it is important for staff to always be aware of trying to engage members, it is also true that the single greatest motivational resource in the clubhouse is the membership itself. Sometimes members, while taking a break, have encouraged other members to join them in the work of the unit. Members often assume the responsibility of engaging other members in the work of the clubhouse.

What makes clubhouse life so appealing is the fact that it is reality based. When we are engaged in the work of the clubhouse we have obstacles to overcome together. We share and delight in the rewards we reap at the clubhouse and we share equally in our challenges. That's what makes our relationships real.

There is no definitive answer or approach to how we engage each other. Every person is different, and each clubhouse is different. However, as a clubhouse movement, we do strive collectively to utilize the elements of our relationships, investing time in each other, and honoring and valuing the specific talents each of us may have.

Jim Davey is on the staff of Progress Place in Toronto, Canada.