By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
For Shelly Clater, the struggle with severe mental illness began more than 30 years ago, when she was a 19-year-old single mother of two infant girls.
Clater began to slowly recede into her head, and one day her sister's boyfriend found Clater riding around on a Metro Transit bus, noticeably disoriented. The boyfriend brought Clater to her mom, who called 911 immediately upon seeing her.
"I lost touch with reality," Clater recalls.
Clater was admitted to the psychiatric wing of Hennepin County Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia — later reassessed as schizoaffective disorder. She went on antipsychotic meds and spent the next year at inpatient hospitals.
When she was released, Clater found it difficult to move forward with her life, she says. She took odd jobs at places like Kmart, Target, and a daycare center, but was quick to quit as soon as she felt a co-worker didn't like her.
In 2001, Clater was living in an apartment in Little Canada, completely isolated from the world other than her 15-year-old son. She was still on the antipsychotics, but again began to drift slowly away from reality, spending her days watching TV and arguing with the radio.
"I was so deep inside of my head," she says. "I was in a really bad, bad, bad place."
In a moment of clarity, Clater realized she needed help and called United Way's 2-1-1, at the time known as "First call for help." An operator told her to get out of the house, and recommended the APOLLO.
The APOLLO saved Clater from isolation. She began attending group sessions, and volunteered to answer phones at the center. She took an interest in politics after going to a current events class, and became involved in activism. She helped others register to vote, and contacted politicians to lobby for better services for mentally ill people.
Clater has been going to the APOLLO since 2001. She's now a co-facilitator of her own group with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and attending workforce training with Vocational Rehab Services, a state-run service that helps Minnesotans with disabilities build skills to get jobs.
She's still trying to imagine what life will be like when the center closes.
"Without APOLLO, none of this would have happened," she says.
On a Tuesday evening in March, APOLLO clients are shooting free throws in the Merriam Park Community Recreation Center gym in St. Paul. They are all dressed in royal blue jerseys labeled "Apollo Eagles," save for one muscular guy in a do-rag who is sporting a Timberwolves jersey.
It's the championship game in St. Paul's Adaptive League, an all-ages league for people who are mentally or physically disabled. It's not exactly March Madness, but a few of these guys can shoot, and the stakes are high. APOLLO lost only one game during the regular season, and it was to Southside, the team they're playing tonight.
"Basketball is Southside's forte," says Mike Kane, the APOLLO team's coach. "I've been doing this for 10 years. Southside dominates basketball. We tend to dominate softball."
The game comes down to a nail biter. With two minutes left, APOLLO has lost its early lead, and Southside is ahead by four points. APOLLO makes a valiant effort to come back, but ultimately loses by six points.
"We had that, man!" screams the guy in the do-rag. "We had that. This is some bullshit, man."
The two teams shake hands, and the APOLLO players are presented with a consolation red ribbon.
Sports have been a major part of therapy at the APOLLO, but with the center closing in a few weeks, they are trying to figure out a way to keep the team going under a different organization's brand.
As the APOLLO prepares to close for good, everyone is scrambling to figure out what to do next. For a couple of months, a group of clients banded together and tried to save the APOLLO with letters and phone calls to politicians. But their cries went unanswered, and they've resigned themselves to their fate. Most staff members will stay on and work for other programs run by People Inc. In the meantime they are helping create transition plans for their clients.
For the more well-adjusted clients like Nerenberg, the APOLLO closing could have an upside. She feels ready to move on, she says, and plans to spend her newly freed up time trying get more involved in the Jewish community. She's also excited to go back to work, and will look into finding a job through the new program funded with the APOLLO money, possibly doing clerical work or customer service.
Not everyone is in quite such a hurry to move forward, however. Among staff and other clients, there is fear for what will happen to those who have come to depend so much on APOLLO.
"For some people," says O'Brien, "this is their only connection."