Saturday, October 26, 2002

Issue 7

Vote with heart, not pocketbook

They want what you want. Respect. Family. Love.

Such things don't come easily to Marilyn, Barry, Mariann, Theresa and Darinda.

They fear going outside. Taking walks. Meeting people. Following a daily routine.

So, they go to Harbor House for help and support. But for how long?

If Butler County voters reject Issue 7 on Election Day and more funds aren't raised for mental heath, Harbor House could disappear.

"And, I'd be lost," said Marilyn, a 57-year-old former nursing home employee.

Marilyn is one of 25 daily visitors to the stately white house in Hamilton's historic German Village.

Some walk. Some drive. Some take the bus.

They come from as far as West Chester. And as close as just down the street.

No matter where they're from, they love the place.

"I feel like I belong here," said Barry, 36, a custodian.

"You feel safe and loved here," said Mariann, a 39-year-old mother of two.

"They treat you like you are normal. It's like family. Only better. Real families don't always get along."

Butler Behavioral Health Services runs Harbor House. The home officially functions as a social club for people with psychological problems.

The house has a long history of helping needy people. Local lore claims it harbored runaway slaves bound for freedom on the Underground Railroad. A string of doctors saw patients in the wood-paneled room where Harbor House holds group therapy sessions.

Budget cuts this month ended most of the group sessions. At the same time, and for the same reason, Harbor House lost its physician and therapists.

Regulars and newcomers continue to visit the house. They encourage each other during crafts workshops, bingo games and gab fests.

They showed up Tuesday for what they hope - funds willing - is a revival of their weekly lunch. Made from scratch by house coordinator Kim Mason, the chili got everyone talking.

Perfect timing. I'm reviving "Lunch with Cliff." That's where I visit people during their midday meal to find out what's on their minds.

At Harbor House, they're worried about how Election Day will affect their future. Butler County's record for passing mental health tax levies could be better.

"It's been 17 years since we've had an increase," said Kimball Stricklin, Butler Behavioral CEO.

During that span, Butler County's population boomed. As did people's needs.

Short staffed

If voters reject the levy, Harbor House faces even more cutbacks. Recent reductions in services have people on edge.

Seven months ago, when 32-year-old Theresa paid her first visit, the house had six therapists immediately available.

"Today," said the former cook, "we have none."

Now, if someone needs a therapist, Mariann added, "we have to walk down the street and make an appointment." Then wait a week. Or two.

That short walk can be stressful, noted Barry Benjamin, the house's former manager and therapist. "These people have social phobias."

Formal office settings, rules and regulations make them uncomfortable. Harbor House's homey environment, he said, "puts them at ease."

Vote yes

If Issue 7 passes, the therapists and doctor will return to Harbor House.

But that will cost homeowners more money.

"I used to own a house," Darinda said. "I know what it's like to try to make ends meet."

On Election Day, she hopes Butler County's voters "remember our words and our needs."

Then, do what's right. Vote with your heart.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail:

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