Skip to main content
Philanthropy Journal Home

Philanthropy Journal News

Club Nova: Providing Entry to Community

 | 

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Karen Kincaid Dunn

“With Club Nova as a part of my life, I have not needed hospitalization for 12 years. I no longer feel caught in a raging storm of being cast out or apart from, but a part of something greater than myself.” Rob Longmire

Club Nova, based on the successful Clubhouse Model, was founded in 1987 to meet the needs of people living with serious mental illness in Orange and surrounding counties. The Clubhouse Model has been replicated in 34 countries with over 320 Clubhouses worldwide.

The Clubhouse concept began in 1944 when a group of individuals discharged from Rockland State (Psychiatric) Hospital in New York began meeting together knowing that they had a better chance of staying out of the hospital by supporting each other. “We Are Not Alone” (WANA) was the organization they formed. From WANA emerged Fountain House – the first Clubhouse.

As part of the Kennedy Community Mental Health Center Act, OPC Area Authority (OPC) was established in 1970 as our mental health center serving Orange, Person, and Chatham Counties. OPC was known for its outstanding social and clinical practitioners who embraced and believed in the people they were there to serve.

Fast forward to the mid 80’s where a group of people living with serious mental illness, with the support of a social worker, Twyla Peterson, was meeting routinely at OPC. OPC received funding to start a program. There were decisions to be made on what our community needed.

Similar to WANA and Fountain House, Club Nova emerged from a grassroots effort of this group and the staff at OPC. The group learned about Clubhouse, researched more in depth, and made the decision and commitment to start a Clubhouse. A smaller group attended training at Fountain House in NYC, returned, and opened Club Nova at 103 D West Main Street. This visionary group has given people living with serious mental illness three decades of hope and opportunity.

They provided the entry into a community wellspring of opportunities and supports, saving and changing the lives of people living with mental illness.

“This community we call Club Nova has saved my life.”- Eric Sullivan 

Members of Club Nova were leaving the hospitals, securing safe, decent, affordable housing, and returning to educational pursuits and to work. It was the beginnings of a community that continues to make a significant impact on our members and the larger community.

“With Club Nova’s encouragement, I went to college part-time at Durham Tech and earned an associate of art’s degree. I then went to UNC part-time for two years, majoring in psychology.  In 2013, I moved into my own apartment behind Club Nova, where there is support.  The Clubhouse remains a place of vibrant interactions with others who have experienced mental illness, giving it a sense of community: a place to come, a place for meaningful employment, a place for meaningful relationships, and a place to return.”  – Nancy Phillips 

We recognize the significant historical role of OPC and the founding members of Club Nova. They could not have made a better decision. Everyone living with mental illness should have access to a Clubhouse.

Sadly in North Carolina, community mental health centers, including OPC, no longer exist. Early in the 2000’s, North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation to privatize mental health services. This meant that our community mental health centers such as OPC had to “divest” of all services they were providing and become the administrative entities managing public dollars and ensuring a network of providers. As part of OPC, this meant Club Nova was being divested, and our fate was up in the air. There were few answers providing a path forward.

Members and staff began weekly “divestiture” meetings researching and strategizing how to ensure our future. These meetings continued for two or three years. We met with legislators, county commissioners, anybody and everybody who might be able to provide information or assist us. After two or three years of work, our efforts culminated in a four day retreat with members and staff. It was time for a final review of everything we had learned and time to decide our future path. At the end of our retreat, our community arrived at pure consensus that now was the time to become a private not for profit free standing Clubhouse.

We knew it was risky. We encourage our members to take the risk to go back to work or to move into their own apartment. Why would we not face the daunting task of establishing our own organization as a major step in ensuring our future? We knew other Clubhouses across the country had made this transition.

At times we were rocked to our core. Transition funding for divesting was promised, but never emerged. We were told we had to divest without funds. We moved forward in our quest to secure funding, and we were successful. In May 2006, Club Nova was divested from OPC and came under the governance of the Board of Directors of Club Nova Community, Inc.

Club Nova is a community treasure – a treasure that needs to grow for current and future members. We have plans for a comprehensive expansion that will carry us through the next three decades and allow us to make an even deeper human, social, and economic impact. We know through our history that we will succeed.  

How we have gotten here and how will we assure the next thirty years

First and foremost, we believe in and experience the extraordinary day in and day out. For most of us, it may be hard to get up in the morning, get dressed, travel, and show up for work. For some of our members, doing just that is a monumental success.

Relationships are the core of our work, and our decision making is consensus based in shared, inclusive leadership.

There is a sense of urgency in our work. People living with serious mental illness are at high risk for suicide, premature death, homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, and poverty. Mental illness is a health condition treated with great disparity. Mental illness is a life threatening illness; however, it does not have to be. Research demonstrates that with Clubhouse and quality psychiatric care, recovery is possible and even prevalent.

The urgency is real, and this leads to three more reasons we are here today: we rarely take no as an answer; we are persistent; and we never give up.

Finally, as part of an international community with a social mission, we remember “WANA” and know that We Are Not Alone and that makes a world of difference.


Karen Kincaid Dunn has been working at Club Nova since 1989. She is passionate about her work and hopes to see the replication of the Clubhouse Model throughout North Carolina.

2 responses on “Club Nova: Providing Entry to Community

  1. Jeffrey Wehner says:

    A story well told. Gives a very clear history of the organization from the beginning till now. I’m proud to be a contributor to Club Nova.

  2. Tommy Gunn says:

    Club Nova has survived diversity while continuing to be there for their Members. I hope that the community continues to support this important organization and the work they do side by side with their Members. Their theme song is the song from Cheers!

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.