Pam McLaughlin of Mount Vernon displays a white paper mask she’s painted with a blend of various shades of blues and purples. Dark lines streak from the sides of the nose out to the ears like whiskers.
She used oil pastel to express thinking about water, recalling family trips to Cape Hatteras when she was a child. “It’s colors I like and memories of the beach,” McLaughlin said, “where all my senses are alive.”
McLaughlin has been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and suffered a mental breakdown before getting treatment. She said art helps her work through continuing depression issues, more than talking about them. McLaughlin also enjoys coming to weekly sessions of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church Agape Reservoir fellowship group.
Each Friday night from September through May, the church opens the doors to its fellowship hall and invites members of the community for dinner, activities and socializing. They specifically cater to people with mental health conditions.
McLaughlin looks forward to it each week because “it’s a light, social thing, and the food.” But more importantly, she said, “The news says we’re violent — here people treat you like a regular person. It’s a judgement-free zone.”
Dr. Glenn Fatzinger is a member of the church; his late wife Harriet founded the group over 15 years ago as an outlet for their daughter, who is selectively mute, to experience fellowship in an alternative setting to the church service.
The Fatzingers’ realized the concept of a free meal and activities, centered around promoting a supportive environment for individuals with mental health conditions, wasn’t common in the community.
“Nobody was doing this,” Fatzinger said. “No other churches in the area. But it’s a Christian concept to extend out and serve others.”
So the weekly gatherings were opened to any member of the community. Between September and May, they see an average of 50 to 60 individuals. Though they accept referrals from Fairfax County mental health services and help picking up those without transportation, there’s no medical therapy offered.
“The purpose is strictly fellowship,” Fatzinger said. “We don’t try to remake them into something else, we deal with people as they are.”
Every meeting begins with a “friendship circle” where those present share their joys and concerns for the week, if they choose. Then a homemade dinner is served by members of the church, sometimes with help from members from St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria.
Many of the guests have apartments in the community, Fatzinger said, though a few who come are homeless.
“It may be the best meal of the week for some of them,” he said.
Next there are organized activities that range from arts and crafts, board games and writing groups to Bible study.
“We don’t talk a lot about mental health,” said Jon Hansen of Mount Vernon, who has been coming almost since the group started. “We talk more about our abilities than our disabilities.”
Hansen said writing about his life experiences has been “cathartic and helpful.”
For many, the social aspect is a key reason why they continue to come, year after year.
“I come for the friends and socializing, otherwise it wouldn’t get done,” said Alex Westwood of Mount Vernon.
“I like the people, the interactions. We lift each other up,” said Charles Murphy of West Springfield, who hosts an annual talent show at the group meeting around Halloween with his sister Sandra Murphy of Mount Vernon.
“I come for friends, the camaraderie, something to do on a Friday,” said Sandra Murphy, “to get a good meal and the Bible study.”
For more information on Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, visit mvpconline.org.