by Lisa Hartsgrove
I love working with Shore House. Not just because I get to teach writing the way I like to—with enthusiasm and support, not judgment—but also because of the strong, caring community we have built together.
Shore House is a clubhouse located in Long Branch, New Jersey, with a mission to empower and restore hope, independence, and self-worth for people living with mental illness.
I have to admit, when I first started teaching at Shore House nearly five years ago, I was intimidated. I thought, “Who am I to teach those living with mental illness when I struggle myself?”
But as the years went on, I realized that’s exactly what connects me with the members.
One day, about two years into teaching, I woke up with an anxiety attack. I had been feeling overwhelmed and wasn’t taking good care of myself. I thought about canceling the Shore House program that day. I didn’t want the members to see me—my bloodshot eyes, my tear-stained face. I felt ashamed of my mental state.
Then I realized my hypocrisy. Shore House members always show up for me. They come as they are—whether they’re having good days or bad. I thought about one member who still came to write when she was in a wheelchair, and another right after an invasive surgery. I thought about all the members who came the week after one was lost—how we grieved together through writing and sharing our memories.
So, I didn’t cancel. I arrived, bags under my eyes and all, and told the members about my anxiety. And do you know what happened? They started telling me about theirs, too.
That kind of trust is what allows meaningful stories to unfold. And those stories build powerful bridges to empathy and understanding. They build community.
The lessons I create provide pathways to healing. I bring in poetry that evokes contemplation and introspection—”A House Called Tomorrow” by Alberto Ríos, “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Laméris, for example—and we write off of the lines or ideas that resonate for us that day.
As a visual artist, I find painting to be cathartic, so I have integrated this medium with the writing we do, as well. One of my favorite lessons was paint pouring, a technique that focuses more on the process than the product. We spent one afternoon spilling paint over canvases—letting ourselves get messy—and then the next crafting words to accompany our images or invoke what the process felt like.
In each class, we explore what we are wrestling with—identity, grief, longing, our hopes and dreams—in our words. Often what I am struggling with many of the members are facing, too. The members blossom with these lessons alongside me.
When Project Write Now comes to Shore House, we come as we are. We don’t judge the way we arrive; we just celebrate the fact that we are here.