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On Solid Grounds

Looking for some holiday cheer?

As the singing Christmas tree next to the cash register slogs through its third rendition of "Jingle Bells," Robbin O'Donley stops pouring coffee long enough to gleefully pull the plug. "That thing's starting to drive me crazy," she says, then pauses. "Oops, too late," the 34-year-old cackles. "I'm already crazy!"

She's not the only one. The fact is, nearly every employee of the Good Company Coffee Shop has mental problems, and so do many of the customers. They're not trying to hide it, either. "Oh, we make jokes about it all the time," says O'Donley, who came to work at the coffee shop four months ago after completing a twelve-week work program through Aurora Mental Health that put her on medication to level her chemically imbalanced brain. "It helps that we all pretty much know where each other's been and what we're going through, with medications and therapy and everything. So no one here's gonna give us any hassles."

A joint effort between Aurora Mental Health and Aurora Public Schools--which sends over both its special-education students and its at-risk youth from the Alternative Center--the coffeehouse is a stepping stone for mentally ill patients who are looking to re-enter society, as well as high school students living with such disorders as cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and mental retardation. "They're supposed to be working toward dealing with the so-called normal world," says Good Company manager Debby Hoffman. "And there just aren't that many places where they can do that without feeling completely insecure or incompetent, especially when they're being measured against people who aren't dealing with mental issues or severe illnesses. So we offer a safe place for them to work and to make friends with people who know where they're coming from."

Where Brenda Bills is coming from, even she's not sure. "Listen, I've been around; I've done some crazy things," says the 39-year-old former Aurora Mental Health client and current Good Company volunteer. "I, well, I act inappropriately. I exhibit inappropriate behavior sometimes, and I'm working on it. Sometimes I get really mad, like when I tell someone to go to hell. That's not the right thing to say." Bills went to AMH on her own to get help for her mental illness, but she credits the coffee shop with furthering her progress. "Sometimes I come in here and I'm all strung out on stress, and I'm having a bad day," confides Bills, whose scarred face reveals the toll her mental instability has taken on her body. "I know I look rough, and that's okay. Debby here loves me, anyway. She gives us work to do, and we work hard for her, and for ourselves. You wouldn't believe the things these mental-health people used to put us crazies through, the experimental shit they laid on us. But this place offers us crazies a place to be ourselves."

At the same time, the coffee shop serves as an informal drop-in center, a referral service for drug addicts and alcoholics, and a haven for anyone who needs help. "We don't hand out more than one free meal to a person off the streets or loan anyone money," says Hoffman. "But anyone who needs support or needs to find out where to go for help, they can come in here and we'll get them where they need to go."

Since Good Company is located at 9875 East Colfax Avenue--tucked in with a bunch of pawnshops, the Nappy Edges Beauty Salon, Living Water Christian Hair Designs, the K-Fashion Mart and a job-placement center--that happens quite a bit. "Despite the location, we've had very few real altercations," says Jan Raskin, dean of students for Aurora Public Schools' Alternative Center and Hoffman's boss. "Occasionally we get a few alcoholics and homeless people who make some noise, but they usually don't want to be in such a public place. And people like Robbin and the other employees have conveyed to the street that we have high hopes for those who come to us for help. It's not okay to just hang out here. We want a commitment. We have high expectations."

Even so, Raskin adds: "I've never seen Debby turn anyone away. As long as they're not threatening violence or being obnoxious, Debby puts her arms around them and talks to them. People who have mental difficulties that the average person would be repulsed by, Debby embraces."

It's noon on a weekday, and self-described "beatnik bongo poet" Rick McKinney is hard at work at the coffee shop, half of which has been painted in the not-so-soothing colors of pinkish-orange and purple. "I have a monster side, a hot temper," McKinney says. "I did some things once, and they put me in jail. I'm Aurora Mental Health client number 5, which means I was there from the beginning. In 1976, when they first started. So I'm very familiar with what they've been trying to do since then to make us all fit in with the rest of the world."

Although McKinney doesn't like to talk about what put him in prison, he has a lot to say about the experimental side of mental-health treatment. "You wouldn't believe the things they used to do to us because they didn't know what the heck to do with us," he recalls. "I'm 41 years old now, and from the time I was 13, they were trying to fix what's wrong with my head, which they used to diagnose as purely schizophrenic, which led them to putting me on the wrong medication for twenty years. Then they finally paired the schizo with bipolar disorder, and that made so much more sense. But imagine being on the wrong medication for twenty years."

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