Arch Street Center marks five years

Member participation is backbone of organization

Evelyn L. Reber could use another hour in the day.

A member of the Arch Street Center, she serves on the food committee and as editor in chief of its newsletter. She also plays piano for the Alpha Club and accompanies the chorus at the YMCA Senior Center. Evelyn is secretary in the teaching nursery at her church, Covenant United Methodist, where she plays the piano and fills in as a teacher when the need arises. She’d like to play in the worship service some day.

None of it exhausts her. All of it exhilarates her.

If it weren’t for involvement in Arch Street Center, said Evelyn, “I think I’d be dead. This center fills so many needs in my life. I get so much encouragement here it’s unbelievable.”

Evenlyn’s story is a familiar one to members, volunteers, and staff of the Arch Street Center, 223 W. Orange St. The center, housed in the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church, is a gathering place for people like Evelyn who are recovering from, or who have had, mental or emotional problems.

Arch Street has been serving the community since Sept 18, 1983, and will celebrate its fifth anniversary next Sunday. The observance will be marked by an open house Thursday, Sept. 22, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. A meal will be served at 5 p.m.

Designed to provide a home away from home, the center offers a comfortable living room setting with sofas, chairs, and a television set. There is a dining area for the residents since a light meal is served every day at a cost of 25 cents. There’s also a radio/tape player, exercise bike, ping-pong/pool table, games, and crafts. Coffee and tea are available as is a soda machine.

The center is open 365 days a year from 3 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 8 p.m. on weekends. Its first month in operation the center had 16 members. Today it has a membership of 395 people, about 250 of whom are actively involved. Members range in age from 18 to 77. All carry membership cards and pay $2 annual dues.

Arch Street is governed by a board of directors. Yet the members too, are directly involved in planning activities for the center. “The philosophy I like to keep here is that the staff works with the members instead of for them,” said Carol Sempowski, Arch Street director. “I am thrilled with the members’ participation. That’s the backbone of the center, I feel.”

Here’s why.

Members serve on the advisory board, food, recreation, crafts, and reach out committees, the latter designed with inactive members in mind. Members publish the “Arch Street News” – a project that was once the responsibility of the staff – and organize fundraisers to be used for special events like trips to the shore or a Philadelphia Phillies game.

They’ve also participated in self-improvement contests that teach members about nutrition and, perhaps, help them lose weight. There are men’s and women’s groups as well as a drama club. Since about a half dozen activities are planned outside the center every month, the Arch Street can comes in handy. “We also provide a VCR movie twice a month,” said Carol.

The daily meal once consisted of soup and sandwich. Today more extensive balanced meals are served to members. Since the center has a license to pre-heat only, cooking is not done there. “Sometimes it’s the only meal they get in the day,” said Carol, as many of the members depend on welfare, Social Security or work only part time.

The Lancaster County Office of Mental Health/Mental Retardation remains the primary funding source for the Arch Street Center which also relies on private cash donations, foundation grants and other donations of food and equipment. Gifts of time and energy are expended by volunteer ranks, called Arch Supports, who help out at the center. “We are in a funding crunch right now,” said Carol. “We are looking at a $40.000 deficit this year.”

All members must be referred to the center by the Lancaster Guidance Center, psychiatrist, or family physician. “I’d like to see an increase in referrals to the center,” said Carol. Arch Street does not provide one-on-one counseling. Yet even though it’s not a treatment center, it provides socialization opportunities that Arch Street members would not otherwise get.

Enter Evelyn Reber.

“I started coming here because once or twice a year I was in the psychiatric unit of the hospital,” said Evelyn. She was an introvert who only left her home to get food. She’d attend church but sit alone in the parlor where she could hear the service piped in through the public address system. Everything was a chore. She remembers going to Woolworth’s for a notebook. She couldn’t buy one because she couldn’t decide on the color.

The product of a “disastrous” 20-year marriage, Evelyn was further devastated when she was fired from a job she loved – one at which Evelyn thought she was proficient. At her doctor’s request, she started going to the Arch Street Center. She’d stop by at 3 p.m., sit in a corner by a lamp and look at the floor. “I couldn’t talk to anyone. I could do nothing, absolutely nothing,” she said. “I didn’t like the way I was.”

She repeated the routine weekly, leaving after the meals. Evelyn eventually became suicidal but was able to survive that emotional time period with the help of two key people: a former associate pastor at her church and an Arch Support who encouraged Evelyn to keep going to the center.

She’s at the center all the time now. Not only does she edit the newsletter, but she does a lot of the reporting, as well. She’s won self-improvement contests., achievements that “let me know I really can do something.” Eventlyn continues to help the program coordinator with meal planning. To that end, she recently whipped up a couple of angel food cakes for the members as well as a batch of beef barbecue. She was just elected to the advisory board and this past winter, for the first time in years, didn’t spend any time in a hospital psychiatric unit.

She hears a lot of, “‘Evelyn, you’re doing a great job. I never got that from my family or others,” she said. “But I got it here.”

“We dwell solely on positive things,” said the Arch Street director, referring to members and staff. “We’re there when they’re down, we’re there when they’re up, we’re there when they’re in between.” Without a place like Arch Street, more people would be walking the streets and frequenting bars, Carol continued. Since Arch Street Center helps people out of the hospital, Carol calls it a form of preventative medicine.

Evelyn agrees. “It is amazing what a person can do when they know what they do is so appreciated. I am so appreciated here, I can even laugh at myself now.”

Evelyn believes God was saving her for something. “And I think the Arch Street Center is that something special.”

In addition to the Arch Street Center open house Sept 22, The Robert Bobby Band will present a benefit concert for the center Wednesday, Sept 14, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Chameleon, 223 N Water St. Cost is $5.

The Sunday News – September 1, 1988
By Barbara Hough, Sunday News Staff Writer