In a nondescript two-flat apartment building on Northwest Highway in Arlington Heights one recent afternoon, eight residents gathered to sing verses of "Oh! Susanna," play percussion instruments and then talk about what the song meant to them.
Frederick Volff recalled his younger days, when he played the saxophone, piano and guitar.
Singing the song, while clanging on a cymbal, "makes you feel good about yourself," Volff said.
The gathering is one of the daily group activities held at the residential community, which is home to four men and four women receiving care for diagnosed mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dozens and dozens of people have moved through the program since it was established 25 years ago this summer by the Northwest Mental Health Center, the predecessor to Amita Health Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health.
"We integrate into the community. The idea is to feel like you're in your home," said Rick Germann, the center's associate vice president.
The residential community is intended for those who require 24-hour support, from help taking medications to transportation to doctors appointments. Those who get into the program can stay as long as they need to.
Sometimes residents require more treatment and go into nursing homes. Others, like Volff, came from a nursing home.
He and his roommate, who live in one of the building's two-bedroom apartments, have been there the longest. Next month, Volff, 59, will celebrate his 10th anniversary at the home.
"I was abused as a kid, and I'm dealing with that, and I have some anger and stuff like that, but my roommate and friends validate me, and they make me feel good," Volff said. "I'm just doing the best I can. I'm very lucky and very blessed to be here."
Many of the residents like Volff keep a busy schedule, as residential counselors encourage them to get out in the community and work on their social skills. Volff has gotten involved at Faith Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, attending Bible study, dinners and other events.
Chuck Duff, one of the residential counselors, called Volff a "great ambassador" for the program in the community.
Sophia Sayani, the team leader who oversees the eight-member 24-hour staff of counselors, said Volff doesn't let his past trauma drag him down.
Getting involved in the community and attending a group-therapy session can help build residents' confidence, she said.
"There's a lot of stereotypes about mental illness. Some of the population feels they're not able to do what regular people can do in the community," Sayani said. "Just because you have a mental illness attached to you, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy life."
Kevin Ray, 58, also participates in activities at his church, including a genealogy class that he says keeps his mind occupied and "on the track that I want it to run."
Ray, who is formerly homeless, takes public transportation to visit his mother on the South Side, and sometimes picks up barbecue on the way back. But he has to plan those trips around the busy group meeting schedule coordinated by the center's staff, like the music group, anxiety management and healthy living.
"If you miss it, you're in trouble," Ray joked.
For more than two decades, Alexian Brothers has also run a transitional living program within two apartment buildings just west of downtown Arlington Heights. The program, for up to 16 residents at a time, is intended to help them develop skills that would enable them to live independently within two years.
Unlike the other facility, case managers are only on-site during regular business hours, but they do coordinate similar group activities, like life skills, cooking and shopping outings.
"We envision a future where recovery is an expectation not an exception," said Germann, who oversees both programs. "You have an illness, but you don't have to live your life as an illness."