Transforming ‘patients’ into ‘real people’

Published 1:33 pm Friday, June 18, 2010

Virgil Stucker, the founding executive director of CooperRiis Healing Community in Mill Spring, never aimed at a life of helping the mentally ill.

After college he aimed at traveling aimlessly, in an old UPS van. He had career opportunities as well, more worldly opportunities. Yet working in therapeutic communities became his calling almost by chance.

Stucker was born in stark circumstances in Guymon, Okla. His family lived in one of the row houses in a natural gas field compressor station, surrounded by a cyclone fence, gila monsters and the occasional tornado.

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Later they lived near Gruver, Texas, where Stucker traveled 18 miles to school in a straight line. His father, a natural gas engineer, later moved the family to follow the pipeline to Marshfield, Wisconsin.

As a young man, Stucker wanted to be an astronaut. He won a congressional appointment to the Air Force Academy and almost got to the door, then turned it down after a friend of his in Vietnam killed himself.

I turned, he said.

He had attended Boys State at Ripon College, a private liberal arts college in Ripon, Wisc. So he just went there instead, intending to study math and physics. He ended up being a philosopher.

He is to this day most convinced by the writings of Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and the first process metaphysician.

The message Stucker takes from Heraclitus is that in community human nature is good and giving, not a natural state of war, as the philosopher Hobbes argues.

Stucker applies that philosophy at CooperRiis, a community which he particularly appreciates because it is a non-profit.

For those who want to know more about that different approach, a chance is coming next week. The world premiere of a 50-minute film about CooperRiis will be shown at the Tryon Fine Arts Center the evening of Tuesday, June 22.

Although this is a very emotional piece, we are excited about being able to let the community know more about what we do at CooperRiis and to have some fun while doing it, Stucker said.

The idea of therapeutic communities like CooperRiis, Stucker says, is that whatever is troubling to a person is what disturbs community.

What is in your way, what illusion and what organizational resources are needed to get rid of the impediments?

Mental illness takes people to a place where they are disengaged, he says. It rips them out of society. Nurturing relationships help move them back to health. They wake up to see that the world needs me, and they want to help out.

Understanding makes the fear go away. People are frightened by mental illness, he explains.

Stucker has done other things along the way. He worked as a community banker, taking a brief leave of CooperRiis from July 2007 to June 2008. Earlier in his career, he headed up charitable foundations. The same principles he uses at CooperRiis applied in foundation work, he says. He found donors also need to realize their dreams and find community in their giving.

Stucker earned his degree in philosophy and political science in 1974. As soon as he finished, he took off to see the world in a canary yellow, stripped down 1946 UPS truck until the engine blew. He started out with $10 in his pocket.

When the aimless drifter plan blew up, Stucker parked at a friends house. The next day, he took a job as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital.

I had volunteered at a psychiatric hospital while in college. I was fascinated. I had never seen people who were in that kind of distress, he says.

He was a group therapist with youth there and was assigned to talk to disoriented patients just waking up from shock therapy.

He later heard of the Gould Farm, the United States oldest therapeutic community, located in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. He went there as a 23-year-old to be a house parent for the summer.

The contrast from the psychiatric hospitals where hed worked was stark.

At the hospital, they had to tie people down. At Gould Farm they were transforming patients again into real people.

Gould Farm, Stucker says, was founded in 1913 by a stump preacher who felt the farm would embody the Sermon on the Mount.

(Gould Farm) was never a religious place, but it embodied those principles, he says.

Although he had a full fellowship to study criminal justice in Albany, N.Y., Stucker instead decided Gould was where he was supposed to be. That worked well. He met his wife Lis, a German Peace Corps volunteer, at Gould in 1976. They met in March, got engaged in April and said their vows in August.

Stucker wrote in his journal at the time that he felt it was his destiny to create places like Gould Farm.

First though, it was off to Germany to learn the ways of his wifes homeland. He worked in northern Bavaria as a lumberjack, where a left handed philosopher such as himself was, he says, of no other use. He still speaks fluent German.

After a year overseas, he was invited by Gould to direct a new Boston program for the farm. That was 1978. During the next 14 years at Gould, he earned a Masters in Business Administration and he and his wife had four children. It was a busy life.

He used his business degree to write an operating system manual for Gould, a book which would allow others to replicate the farms operations anywhere. Some of the families helped by Gould asked him to do just that, and he started the Gateway therapeutic community in Chester, Va., south of Richmond, Va.

After a year back at Gould in 1988, he moved to Detroit to bootstrap a new program, the Rose Hill Center, on a 372-acre farm. He helped to raise $6 million and spent five years there.

One of the keys to therapeutic communities, Stucker says, is connecting with peoples passion. What is it you really want to do? People have the greatest dreams if you just listen.

So rather than focus only on a persons despair, or the medical diagnoses, Stucker says he believes a good place to start to help people is to ask about their dreams.

He was serving on the Gould Farm board of directors and running a foundation in 1999 when he got the call to come meet Don and Lisbeth Cooper. They are thinking of doing something in North Carolina.

Stucker went out to dinner with the Bat Cave couple, later founders of CooperRiis in Mill Spring, and they all spent a nice weekend together around Christmas. He gave them the business plan he had developed at Gould. But he saw a difference in them that attracted him back to his lifelong work.

Others wanted a place for their child, he said. They wanted to create a place because of their child.

With their own daughter, the Coopers had seen the typical crisis system for mental health care, police, hospitals which can only keep a mental patient now for a few days. Then where? What? Call a group home? The only way to pay for that is Social Security, even if you want to write a personal check. Social Security approval takes about nine months.

We get calls here all the time from moms who are searching, desperate, Stucker says. There is no system today. All the systems are falling apart. The rule is that unless you are a danger to yourself or others, you cant get any care.

Stucker says there are more people in prison today in the United States than any other country in the world, many with mental illness. The rest are living in the streets or in the homes of their aging parents.

A lot of the disabled will have no place to go when they are elderly, he says.

Stuckers philosophy of therapy is to help people seek wholeness again, not just to look for a magic pill. Psychopharmacology is complementary to things like eating well, living well, exercising well and telling your story.

Illness is a matter of the heart more than the mind. You lose your heart. You are frightened by the way the world treats you. You disengage and friends and family go away. You dont even know who you are anymore.

The answer?

Start living, because thats what fixes you up, Stucker says. He says with this philosophy, he has seen many miracles on (Hwy.) 108.

Stucker was the founding executive director of CooperRiis Healing Community in 2003. But following the pattern of his previous work history, he moved on after five years and became a community banker back in Massachusetts. He wore a suit and tie.

But he came back.

Hes been busy ever since. Last January, CooperRiis opened a program in Asheville and Stucker goes back and forth. He has no office. He moves about the properties, meeting with staff and patients. Long range plans are being discussed to see CooperRiis do even more for more people.

I want to be here, Stucker says.