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PHOTO: Residents at the Center for Living and Learning work in the garden, planting and harvesting organic vegetables. / Brooke Wanser

By BROOKE WANSER

On a perfectly sunny day, Fran Clippard walked through the organic garden at the Center for Living and Learning, smiling as residents greeted her.

“Hey y’all,” she said to a half dozen residents on their break after a morning of work in the garden.

The Center is both an inpatient and independent living facility for individuals with mental health issues; primarily depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, Clippard said.

Their vocational program is also open to anyone with a disability, like autism or cerebral palsy. They even work with students from Williamson County Schools.

Located just off Hillsboro Road and Highway 96 West in Franklin, the 30-acre property holds three houses, plus several buildings for vocational training and horticultural purposes.

Clippard’s brother, Donald Lackey, was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in his late teens at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“He had stopped going to classes, he’d stay in his dorm room and cry,” she said. “His roommate called and said, ‘Something is wrong.’”

“He could not go out in public when he first got here,” Clippard said of his symptoms, which included paranoid delusions and inability to focus.

After trying several residential treatment programs, the family decided to open their own center, purchasing the property in 1986 as a haven for him and others.

“We looked at farms all over Middle Tennessee, and this was the closest property that would be very accessible,” Clippard, who is from the Green Hills area, said.

In 1988, they opened the property up to other residents, too.

Residents receive progressive psychiatric treatment from Dr. William Petrie, a well-known geriatric psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Mental illness has received prejudicial treatment in American medicine,” Petrie said in a video on the center’s website.

Lackey was one of the first patients in the state to receive then-experimental antipsychotic medication Clozapine, the first atypical medication for those with treatment-resistant schizophrenia.

Clippard believes symptoms of mental illness can be made worse when those suffering are not given the stimulation of a productive life.

“This is a typical case scenario: nothing to do,” she said. “The parents cannot manufacture a structure for an adult child.”

Residents are certainly not idle; horticulture is just one of the interests the 26 patients partake in

Through their partnership with the Tennessee Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Clippard and employees at the center work to develop individual employment plans for residents based on their unique skills.

This spring, farming organic cabbage, arugula, radishes and carrots allows for sales to the community through a community-supported agriculture program (CSA).

Their produce is even award-winning. Inside a common house, blue ribbons from the Williamson County Fair are displayed for their organic tomatoes.

“Agriculture and horticulture is such a learning process,” Clippard said.

Independent residents have their own vehicles and come and go as they please, working at places like Publix grocery stores, Puckett’s, Goodwill, and the Leiper’s Fork Market.

Other activities include meditation, music and art therapy, access to horses, and regular trips to the YMCA and Christ United Methodist Church services on Sundays.

The community functions on a token economy, Clippard said, with tokens received for doing assigned chores.

Like her brother, Clippard said several of the residents suffer from schizophrenia; what is known as “positive” symptoms include hallucinations, hearing voices, and delusions.

Those symptoms, especially hearing controlling voices, can be “very scary, very devastating,” to patients, Clippard said.

“When they receive the proper care and medication, those positive symptoms clear up a lot,” she said.

As a nonprofit, 75 percent of the center’s costs are paid for by resident fees, while the other quarter comes from the United Way, grants from private foundations, and an annual golf tournament.

Many patients have advanced degrees in creative fields, only suffering from mental illness in mid-life.

One patient was working as a nurse at Vanderbilt before he suffered a psychotic break.

After a year break and treatment at the center, he is considering working to become certified as a phlebotomist. “It’s a rebuilding of someone’s life,” Clippard said.

The center is not a short-term fix, either. The average patient may stay several years, though some have no desire to leave.

Patients who do leave seldom experience relapses that cause them to seek treatment at the center again; Clippard said she believes only two patients have returned after treatment, and one because she was “lonely.”

Blue eyes sparkling, Clippard spoke with understanding of the residents who call the center home.

“We provide 24-hour care and a daily structure that’s therapeutic,” she said simply. “We see people stabilize and be able to be productive citizens.”