Ogden mental health aid group perseveres

Sunday , June 22, 2014 - 6:29 AM

OGDEN — For over four decades the nonprofit Positive Action Assistance Group has functioned as a quiet but powerful force in the community by providing housing and constructive support to individuals who battle severe and persistent mental illness.

On Friday, PAAG staff, clients and friends gathered in central Ogden’s cozy Krieve mini-park for the group’s annual breakfast. This year’s fare consisted of karaoke, pancakes and the simple joy of socializing on a summer day.

But for many who grapple with mental illness, isolation often becomes the norm.

“I like being out rather than being stuck at home where I feel isolated,” said Danny Webb, 39, who has been involved with PAAG for about 18 months. He and girlfriend Stephanie King, 35, met at a PAAG outing last summer and King said they formed an instant bond.

One component of the PAAG program involves pitching in and doing chores, for which clients get paid in “Herns” dollars that can be spent to play pool, access computers, buy groceries or participate in excursions to Lagoon, Crystal Springs and other area venues. The group’s annual August camping trip costs $2,000 in Herns cash, and so far, Webb said he’s saved $1,200.

Weber Human Services referred King to PAAG three years ago “to get socialization,” she said, and what she appreciates the most is “that they’re there for you when you’re having a problem. They really care about who you are.”

For Jeff Imes, 58, PAAG provided a significant lifeline. At the age of 14, Imes said he set himself on fire with gasoline — resulting in second and third degree burns.

“I was four grades behind in school, dropped out in junior high, got depressed and set myself on fire,” Imes said in explanation.

Diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar, Imes said he’s been in and out of the state hospital seven times.

In 1990, Imes married a woman who died of Huntington’s Disease four years later. Through the years he said he fathered six children and is grandfather to four.

“PAAG has helped me out a lot,” Imes said of his daily participation in activities at the group’s drop-in center at 2748 Adams Ave. For nine years he lived in the Royal Hotel, where his job was to help keep it clean. A year ago, he was able to move into a larger apartment with better cooking facilities.

Even as a tot, PAAG was a big part of Neely Sorenson’s life. Her uncle, Rhett Potter, launched the group in 1970 with the assistance of her dad, Kirby Potter. She now serves as office assistant for the nonprofit.

“I grew up coming to PAAG picnics and Christmas parties,” Sorenson said. “I have six little sisters and we’d all come into Ogden. We thought it was great fun.”

Amid those good times, Sorenson observed PAAG “helping a lot of people be self-reliant and productive in their lives — them having a purpose.”

By involving clients in day-to-day tasks, they’re busy and serving others, Sorenson said and “then they feel a lot better about their situation.”

A group of Weber State students majoring in Social Work and interning with Weber Human Services enjoyed Friday’s event.

“I’ve learned a lot more about their illnesses and how each one of them copes in different ways,” said Jenney Johnson, a WSU student from Syracuse. Johnson noted the importance of good support systems and how, for some, those safety nets are tattered or missing.

“Isolation feeds depression, and it’s important that they come to group,” Johnson said. “A lot of people say they look forward to it every day.”

Last fall, PAAG was at risk of having to shut down within six to eight months due to the loss of $600,000 in annual state funding four years ago.

To survive during that four-year period, the nonprofit made drastic cuts, laying off 14 employees, closing down various properties and tapping reserves that had been set aside for maintenance and upgrades simply to keep functioning. But the well was running dry.

Fortunately, that dire situation was remedied during the recent legislative session when lawmakers allocated $300,000 per year in ongoing funds to PAAG. Housing and Community Development, part of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, also gave PAAG $65,000 in one-time funding to help maintain housing owned by the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, said Weber County Commissioner Jan Zogmaister, who serves as president of PAAG’s executive board.

“PAAG is in a much stronger position now,” Zogmaister said. “We’re so glad that the Legislature and community stepped up.”

To learn more about PAAG — formerly known as Problems Anonymous Action Group — go to paagutah.org.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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