Volunteer uses Art to Help Friendship Place Members Connect to Community

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health agencies in the Fox Valley address the needs of those living with mental illness and promote the overall mental health of our community.

The Retired & Senior 55+ Volunteer Program is helping by recruiting volunteers. In 2017, 35 RSVP volunteers assisted in meeting the mental health needs of agency clients. They offered 2,436 hours of service to those individuals. The following is a story about one of those volunteers:

When Jeff Zdrale retired in June 2006, he spent the rest of the year catching up on his to-do list around his house in Neenah. He also remembered that his daughter used to volunteer as a painting instructor’s helper at Friendship Place, a nonprofit social, educational and recreational outreach facility in Neenah for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. That led him to inquiring at the agency about volunteer opportunities.

RSVP volunteer, Jeff Zdrale, teaches a water- color class at Friendship Place.

More than a decade later, he continues to lead a class in watercolor for members there.

“I enjoy it so much when they are appreciative and they are engaged in an activity that they are excelling at,” he said.

Stephanie Wheeler, program coordinator at Friendship Place, said his watercolor class helps members discover their talents.

“Many of our members have never painted in their adult lives before coming to watercolor classes at Friendship Place with Jeff,” she said. “If asked, they would describe themselves as ‘not talented’ or ‘not artistic.’ But after seeing other members’ paintings, which we have displayed throughout our facility, and a little encouragement from staff, their interest is often piqued enough to at least try one class.”

Friendship Place has a large room where about seven to 12 members gather for his class.

The agency provides all the materials, so they literally just need to show up, and are under no pressure to attend further classes or even complete a painting.

“We put three long tables together, Zdrale said. “I just go around and help each person. And if I’m late, everything is set up, the brushes, the palette and the water. The process of helping to do it, getting ready – it’s a great source of support for them. Then we display the paintings.”

Zdrale noted that members of Friendship Place have held art shows at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum and the Menasha Public Library. In July, the group will display paintings on the third floor of the Trout Museum.

‘The main purpose is engagement,” he said. “Not only getting them involved completely with something they haven’t done before, but becoming engaged in the community.”

Zdrale points out that Friendship Place serves a number of purposes. The agency provides opportunities for members to participate in activities they normally wouldn’t do, like field trips and making crafts. Staff provides support for members in several ways, including helping them work through conflicts in social relationships.

“Some members have jobs,” he said. “It’s a social support center without structure – there’s no pressure to really do anything you don’t want to do.”

Zdrale’s other volunteer roles include interviewing clients at LEAVEN and the St. Joseph Food Program, tutoring adults at the Fox Valley Literacy Council and leading tours at Bergstrom-Mahler Museum. He also is a member of the RSVP Community Council.

“I like to work with people who are disenfranchised,” he said. “Almost everything I do relates to that clientele.”