Because stability shouldn’t be tied to a lease.

Forty years ago, Sherry Skelton attempted to take her own life, an experience that forced her to confront her anxiety and PTSD. “I didn’t know I had a mental illness until I got slapped in the face with it,” says Skelton. Now, she draws on those experiences to help others who are struggling with mental illnesses.

Since 2011, Sherry has worked as the first full-time Peer Support Specialist at Strawberry Fields, a Centre County nonprofit that offers a continuum of services, enhancing the lives of individuals with developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, and mental illnesses.

Sherry’s road to recovery, however, did not come without its challenges. During the Great Recession in 2008, Sherry became homeless and moved into Centre House, a shelter operated by Housing Transitions.

“Centre House was a great place. They were very supportive and caring,” says Sherry. “One day, though, representatives from Strawberry Fields came to present to us. They were looking for another member for their Fairweather Lodge.”

Founded by George Fairweather in California in 1963, a “Fairweather Lodge” offers support for adults with mental illnesses. Lodge members share household responsibilities and costs while helping each other throughout their recovery. Today, more than 90 Fairweather Lodges exist throughout the United States.

Strawberry Fields opened the first Fairweather Lodge located in Centre County in 2007.

“Most mental health programs have an end date or are considered to be transitional,” says Cindy Pasiquinelli, CEO at Strawberry Friends. “The funders want to keep people and beds moving. But the beauty with the Fairweather Lodge is that there is no end date.”

The Lodge also features minimal staffing and no fees for members except for upkeep of the property.

“Throughout my four years at the Fairweather Lodge, I learned that I wasn’t the only person out there that felt abandoned, forgotten, and mistreated,” says Sherry. “Eventually, my self-esteem started going up and up and up.”

Cindy says, “The most important thing is that Sherry hasn’t forgotten where she came from. That’s what makes her so powerful with her peers.  She has become a role model for so many.”

In addition to helping Sherry find meaningful employment, Strawberry Fields also provides employment opportunities at two of their locally owned businesses: Scraps & Skeins and Good Day Café.

Scraps and Skeins is a creative reuse shop that sells fabric, yarn, and other knitting and sewing supplies that have been donated by the community. The shop exclusively employs adults facing mental health challenges.

“Having a job is so important because it gives people purpose,” says Cindy. “Everybody has gifts, and when you get them in the right place, it’s magical.”

Good Day Café, recipient of Centre Foundation’s $100,000 Centre Inspires grant in 2017, is a coffee shop that employs people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.

“Before Good Day Café, Strawberry Fields was an organization without a face in the community,” says Cindy. “When we were awarded the Centre Inspires grant, it gave us the opportunity to share with the community what we as an organization do.”

In addition to receiving Centre Inspires funding, Strawberry Fields also participates in Centre Gives, raising $15,209 in 2018 and $16,931 in 2019.

The nonprofit also benefits from the Eugene and Lydia Herman Family Fund, an endowment fund at Centre Foundation which supports Strawberry Fields’ mission of enhancing the quality of life and promoting the individual growth of people with disabilities.

Although Sherry’s path to social work was nontraditional, she found her niche and feels good about what she has accomplished for herself and for others. “I used to walk around the office with my head down because I was always afraid,” says Sherry. “Now, I look at people. That’s an achievement.”