Friends warned it couldn't be done. They said money would not be made available. The community wouldn't cooperate, they said, and they insisted no one would join.
Today, more than three years later, the success of the Green Door, a self-help community mental health program, has been described by patients and doctors as nothing short of phenomenal. And its creators, Gail Marker and Ellen McPeake, two determined young women who saw a void and sought to fill it are saying goodbye and passing the torch.
The Green Door, formed in 1976, was based on the idea that the mentally ill had a right to treatment outside of an institution.
It was an idea conceived while McPeake and Marker were working for the Mental Health Law Project, a public interest group. The two women had helped prepare a class-action suit which ended with a court ruling that mentally ill persons were entitled to the "least restrictive mode of alternative care." Many of the patients at Saint Elizabeths Hospital did not belong there, the court said, but they had no other place to go for treatment. The court directed the District and federal governments to provide the means for developing community care.
The Green Door was born.
The Green Door offers its members -- men and women who have been diagnosed as chronically mentally ill -- a place to gather during the day, training in domestic and commercial skills, and for those who feel ready -- apartments and part-time jobs.
What the two women have done, said Dr. Ken Gorelick, residents psychiatrist at St. Elizabeths, "is to create a deinstitutionalized humane environment where chronically mentally ill patients can blossom and learn to function within a broader segment of the community."
"I am convinced," says one man who bounced in and out of St. Elizabeths for 16 years before joining the Green Door, "that if Gayle and Ellen had not entered my life, I would still be sleeping in the same bed on the same back ward, wondering why I should even bother to get up."
Only 17 percent of Green Door members, most of them former patients at St. Elizabeths and most diagnosed schizophrenics, were rehospitalized last year. The national return rate for chronically mentally ill patients discharged from state and local hospitals, according to a spokesman for the National Institute on Mental Health, is about 70 percent.
The Green Door's low hospital readmission rate, Marker explained reflects their philosophy that if they treat a member as they would a well person, rather than emphasize their illness, the person will inevitably begin to feel better about himself.
"We can't go back and undo their toilet training," Marker says, "but we can at least show it's not that difficult to make it on the outside."
The Green Door is housed in a red brick-faced, four-story mansion of 10,000 square feet, claiming an entire corner at 16th and Corcoran streets NW. It has replaced the one-room scantily furnished church meeting hall that housed the group that first day, Jan. 26, 1977.
The membership -- there are no patients here, Marker stresses, only club members -- has grown from the original six to a group of more than 100. A paid staff of 25, including four former members and 50 volunteers, now supplement the original two-woman show. The initial $68,000 budget has grown to include some $600,000 in government and private funds.
"Before I met Gayle and Ellen," says one of the original six charter members, "I had no hope, I didn't believe in myself. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life taking drugs and pacing hospital wards." What is more, he concludes, "They gave me back my dignity."
Not only did McPeake and Marker have to recreate a home setting for the members, one approximating reality, but they had to re-teach many of the living skills others take for granted. It is not unusual, psychiatrist Gorelick explained, for a chronically ill patient to be unable to dress himself, shop for groceries or cook.
Today, 38 members live in 10 Green Door apartments -- the leases are signed by the Green Door, but the residents pay the rent -- and 16 members work in various entry-level jobs, where they were placed by the center's job director.
Other members live in independent apartments, with a family or in a foster home, or at the hospital.
While only some members may work, everyone, Marker stressed, must meet every day with one of the six clubhouse units. The units are ostensibly set up to keep the building running smoothly, but are also designed to provide a strong and stable network of support -- a family who cares -- and to teach basic social and job skills.
Eventually, McPeake half-jokingly admitted, "We hope some members will tell us to bug off and leave them alone." And, she added, "We will have to applaud them, because that's what the Green Door is all about: learning to help yourself."
McPeake and Marker, who plan to take long vacations when they retire at the end of this month, leave the Green Door with mixed emotions.
"It's like leaving my family," McPeake said, "but you can really only say good-bye to people you love."
It is time to go, both say. The program needs change at the top.
Green Door housing director Beverly Russo, will become the Green Door's new executive director.
In any case, Russo has a hard act to follow, when people such as Rosalynn Carter -- a follower of the Green Door since its inception -- say, "Because of the extraordinary dedication and perseverance of its founders, Gayle Marker and Ellen McPeake, hundreds of people who have suffered from chronic mental illness are learning to live in the community again. We need more projects like the Green Door, all across the country."