Omni House Establishes Foundation For The Mentally Ill

Budget Squeeze Forces Program To Raise Money

March 20, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

He started off slowly, staying late to tidy up loose ends. But Greg Vaughan soon became a classic workaholic, spending up to 60 hours a week at his job. Then the stress caught up with him.

Under constantpressure working as a security guard in Baltimore, he suffered a breakdown brought on by a chemical imbalance. The 38-year-old Linthicum resident briefly checked himself into a hospital before he found refuge at Omni House, a non-profit rehabilitation program for the mentally ill.

Seven months later, Vaughan is back on his feet again. He's living with two roommates in the Americana apartment complex and working part time at a more relaxed job at Taco Bell.

Vaughan credits Omni House for providing the support and encouragement he needed to overcome problems that have haunted him for 17 years. With the help of the Glen Burnie-based program, he said, he's gained self-esteem and a newfound independence.

"It's meant a lot to me," he said. "I feel a real sense of belonging here because the group is mutually supportive. Every day, people ask me how I am. You just don't get that outside."

To guarantee that people like Vaughan will continue getting help, Omni House has started a foundation to provide another source of money during tight financial times.

"We've kind of been forced intoit by the current budget situation," said Lois Miller, who founded Omni House in 1981 and serves as executive director. "With the financial situation of the state, we're faced with budget cuts along with everyone else."

Targeted for some of the deepest budget cuts to offset Maryland's growing deficit, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is struggling to keep community-based mental health programs running at full speed. Although the Mental Hygiene Administrationis reducing grants to community programs such as Omni House, the agency has succeeded in doubling medical assistance payments to compensate for the loss, said regional coordinator Susan Giraldi.

Although Giraldi promised the programs would not suffer from budget cuts, shesupported the idea of creating a foundation to provide another source of much-needed money.

"I would applaud that step," she said. "We're trying to make up the deficit and balance our books without eroding the community efforts we've spent so much time to build up. But another source of funding is always wise."

Omni House relies on state and federal reimbursements to pay a large portion of its $1.5 million operating budget, Miller said. She fears her 40-member staff will have no pay raises next year if the organization continues to depend solely on the government.

"If we get no increased funding in (fiscal) 1992, it's going to be tough to expand," she said.

Miller wants to gain more financial freedom for Omni House by buying homes instead of leasing apartments for the 47 people in its residential program. The organization has applied for $50,000 in community development block grants to purchase its first home. Omni House also is seeking a low-interest bond of $1 million to buy 12 condominiums, Giraldi said.

"This year, Omni House is one of the biggest, if not the biggest recipient of expansion funds," Giraldi said. "If anything, the budgethas been greatly increased."

In July, the organization hopes to open eight two-bedroom homes for 16 patients currently hospitalized atCrownsville State Hospital Center. The move is part of the state's long-term effort to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, Miller said. Increasing numbers of patients at psychiatric hospitals have been moved into group homes under the care of community rehabilitation programs in recent years.

To prepare people who have a history of mentalbreakdowns for daily life outside an institution, Omni House runs a semi-independent residential program. Patients pay the rent and utilities, sometimes through medical assistance, but receive help with daily tasks such as shopping for groceries and cooking dinners.

Some of the 47 people in the residential program go to school or work at entry-level jobs. Others relearn skills forgotten in the hospital by working at Omni House, cooking, cleaning, answering phones and runningthe center's thrift shop. Another 40 people who live with parents orrelatives participate in the day program, which emphasizes building self-esteem and learning work skills.

The organization hopes to continue expanding in upcoming years by relying on the new foundation. A series of fund-raising events, including a golf tournament in September, is being organized, said Peggy Santamaria, a loan officer with the Bank of Glen Burnie who serves on the foundation board.

"Our goal is to find the funding, so Omni House can continue what it does so well," she said.

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