Allegheny College graduate Lynn McUmber has helped transform the Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program (CHAPS) from a small drop-in center more than two decades ago into a countywide agency that now serves more than 800 clients annually.
McUmber, Allegheny Class of 1978, has served as the executive director of CHAPS for the past 22 years. After graduating, she began work in various social work positions, with focuses ranging from intellectual disabilities to child welfare to Active Aging. It was when she transitioned to housing and homelessness that she found a greater passion for her work.
“When I returned to Meadville, in working at the county office, I saw how many individuals who experienced mental illness here were in very, very poor living conditions, and really had very little community support,” McUmber says.
“I was able to convince the county office to allow me to focus on that issue, of housing and decent affordable housing for persons with disabilities, especially mental illness,” she says. “That was the beginning of a career of exploring what opportunities are out there, and looking into a system and starting to develop a network of an array of services that would help individuals who have experienced mental illness, and/or individuals who are homeless or near homeless, access affordable housing and be successful in maintaining that housing.”
CHAPS was initially founded in 1988 as a small drop-in center that opened one evening a week for receiving services as a peer-support group but away from clinical oversight.
McUmber joined the program in 1990 and was able to bring her work with the county to CHAPS to begin to focus on housing opportunities. At first it was led by a board of equal members, but by 1995 McUmber was voted into the executive position.
CHAPS has since expanded to offer a range of services that still include the drop-in center, although now it is open daily.
There is also the Community Education and Outreach program (CEO) which hosts various peer- or family-support groups and education programs; Mobile Psychiatric Rehabilitation, which assists members in accessing resources and building skills to be as independent as possible; Housing Solutions, which connect homeless individuals with affordable, permanent housing, and help them develop skills and resources needed to maintain that housing; and the Journey Center, where both staff and members collaborate on projects in jobs such as receptionist work, outreach, publication or data collection. In addition, every year the organization holds a Walk-A-Thon, its fall fundraiser in which volunteers complete a three-mile walk and are sponsored by local businesses who donate monetary pledges.
“Lynn is continually dedicated to the growth of CHAPS,” says Amanda Burke, program coordinator for the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program and Peer Support Program, and a CHAPS employee for the past 10 years. “She remains open-minded and mission-driven when seeking new funding sources and new programming opportunities. She has worked tirelessly to increase the number of services CHAPS can offer the community. She has a true passion for this work as evidenced by her continued efforts to advance the agency’s mission and goals.”
“We always look at ‘what is the need?,’ and then we try and meet that need,” McUmber says. “We always made sure not to chase programs. We are a consumer agency, so everyone shares in identifying what’s needed and decision-making.”
CHAPS’ primary mission has been to provide support for individuals with mental illness, but the agency has been able to expand that to a secondary mission — providing opportunities for individuals and families who are homeless or near homeless, because the two often occur simultaneously.
Burke says the variety of services offered is what makes CHAPS especially successful and vital in Meadville. “We pride ourselves on being a safe and accepting place for people to come and receive the support they are in need of,” she says. “We highly value the many community partnerships we have with other agencies and providers as well.”
McUmber graduated as a psychology and speech major from Allegheny, but says the experience and understanding she gained from the community service are what led her to CHAPS. “The skills and gifts I received were not so much in social matter, but the ability to collaborate and think outside the box,” she says. She has been able to implement those skills in a different approach to mental health care, one intended to address all areas of a person’s life, and focus on recovery and the individual’s gifts.
“If you think about a person’s life and all of the areas of their life that they’re about, mental illness has been thought about as how an individual needs to go to a doctor and get medication. We try and address all the other areas of a person’s life, which includes their housing, what your income is, do you have friendships, do you have a purpose in life, be it a job, volunteer work, somewhere you’re needed? Do you have the skills that you need to manage your home and your finances? Your spirituality, your family, your friends. Mental illness brings a lot of loss in different areas, and we try and create opportunities through programming so people can regain those things.”
McUmber’s work can be clearly seen in CHAPS’ impact today. Last year, the group served 810 individuals; helped 187 households establish permanent housing; had 114 members actively volunteering; and through the Journey Center, helped 40 members gain employment in the community. Many of the workers at CHAPS have experienced some form of mental illness as well or came to CHAPS in a time of need, and through their programs have made great strides and are now trained in administering those same programs.
“Lynn is an excellent leader and director,” Burke says. “She has made it her life’s work to improve the lives of those who come through CHAPS and the community as a whole. She has the ability to find the good in every situation and identify the gifts and strengths of those around her. She is kind, caring, funny and empathetic. It is my honor to work alongside her as well as learn and grow from her experience.”
Says McUmber: “This has been a wonderful life. As far as a job goes, it’s been an incredible opportunity to be a part of this movement. CHAPS evolved in a slow process, but blossomed out mindfully. And I’ve developed so many long-lasting friendships and have seen such amazing and great things happen in people’s lives.”