Hometown Pride: A light in the darkness

Hoover can help others with mental illness because he’s been where they are

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Randy Hoover can explain the ever-increasing collection of stuffed animals on the “Penguin Island” shelf ... but it’s a long story.

It takes an unusual mind to dream up a place like Freedom Pointe.

Among the soda tower, the tables of puzzles and games, and the incongruous cabinet of stuffed penguins — it’s a long story — you’ll find a place for mental health support, not from doctors or professionals but from those who have been through mental illness themselves.

The unusual mind running it all is Randy Hoover, who started Freedom Pointe with help from Ken Hays, former Webster County community services director, and Bob Lincoln, CEO of the 22-county mental health region called County Social Services.

Hoover was a college graduate with a double major in education and psychology, and was working as a teacher when his own mental illness sent him running from everything he knew in Iowa.

“I ran away from home — that’s the only way to put it,” Hoover said. “You know the fight or flight syndrome; I picked flight. I ran away from my job, from my wife and a bunch of kids.”

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Randy Hoover, director of the Freedom Pointe center, interrupts a cribbage game recently with Marvin Leffingwell, Jr., and Randy Schwering. The Freedom Pointe center hosts games, crafts, activities and all sorts of special outings.

Hoover graduated from Prairie Community High School, before it was Prairie Valley, and got his college education at Buena Vista.

Hoover ended up in North Carolina; without consciously meaning to, he found his way to within 10 miles of his daughter.

“I stayed with her for a while. She convinced me to go to the doctor,” Hoover said.

The doctor diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder.

“When I asked what that was, she gave me the symptoms of, you feel like you have no value,” Hoover said. “You feel like you don’t belong anywhere. You feel like no one wants you; like everyone will leave you before it’s done. And it has a lot of suicidal ideations connected to it.

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Randy Hoover checks up on Nick Osborn as he completes a picture frame art project at Freedom Point recently.

“I’ll be honest, I usually go through that about three times a day. Thinking, let’s just end it, and not worry about other people. But then you think about, like they say, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Hoover tried different medications, but the only real treatment for borderline is therapy, he said. This was 15 years ago, and he never lost contact with that doctor.

“I talk to her almost every day on the phone yet,” Hoover said. “She says, I understand you, I want to help you. You’re doing good things, and you can’t do that if you’re not in a good place yourself. She has made a big impact in my life.”

Hoover had a long road back to recovery. A group at a church raised money to send him back to Fort Dodge, and bought him food. He made it home, got divorced, and lived in his van for some time, eating just a can of green beans every day.

Eventually he was convinced to visit the peer support center that was available at the time. He didn’t think it would be for him, but once he was there he changed his mind.

“I listened to them talk and I realized — they have the same thoughts I do. So I talked to them, I got a therapist up here. And they helped me through.”

Later in life, this experience would inspire him to say yes to starting Freedom Pointe.

“I know what it was like out there for me. I was out there and no one was even paying attention. Nobody cared — or that’s what I felt,” he said. “Some of the people in the center just got my attention. Suddenly I had friends again.”

Irene Blair, the now-retired director of the Webster County Community Services Department, offered Hoover a job at the center. By this point, he had rented an apartment and was working at the Rabiner Treatment Center.

Some years later, Bob Lincoln spoke with Hoover about starting a new program.

“I said, ‘I suppose I could give it a try,'” Hoover said. “We spent a lot of time putting things together. We started meeting down at the library, in one of their conference rooms. I think we met three days a week. Then we had to get out of there because you can only use it so many times.

“We moved to Snell-Crawford Park, and met in the shelter house. We all became really good at croquet.”

After this, Theresa Naughton of Lifeworks asked Hoover if he would like to have his own space, he said.

Freedom Pointe isn’t affiliated with Lifeworks, but as of today it has shared a building with the organization for about a year and a half.

“I will be honest, I’m not sure if Freedom Pointe would even be where it is if it wasn’t for Theresa Naughton,” he said. “We talk, and she has given me a lot of advice. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes, no I want to do it this way. It’s wrong, but it’s more fun.”

Hoover has never been about following the well-worn path.

“What is the famous poem, the road less traveled,” he said. “I had someone tell me once the biggest mistake you can make in life is the mistake of omission. Not trying. He said you’ve got to try. At least if you failed, you failed trying.”

Freedom Pointe has game nights and activities, and keeps a space for people to meet. Members of the organization get out into the community to give others a helping hand.

“The idea that, if you get people together, we all kind of help each other,” he said. “We do one-on-ones. We go out, we listen to them, we help them with forms they need to fill out, we get them to doctor appointments, we help them go to the grocery store to get groceries.

“We’re working on a pilot prevention program with Amerigroup. I was told the average hospital stay for a mental health issue costs Amerigroup $28,000. We’re willing to take much less than that to try to prevent people. In the three years we’ve been going, no one connected to us has been committed, and no one has even gone to the emergency room for mental health issues.

“We’re not therapists. We help them get to either Berryhill or Community Health. Both those places are really good.”

The idea is to make sure people get to the resources that are available.

Hoover also keeps track of the group’s successes. There’s a bag full of rocks at the center; each one represents a suicide that was stopped.

“It has 18 in it now,” Hoover said. “One of those rocks is me. … Theresa was the one who stopped that one.”

The center sees about 83 clients, Hoover said. It gets paid for about eight of them.

In both funding and finding the best ways to help, mental health work is not easy. Hoover jokes that he wouldn’t have taken it on if he’d known it would be this much work — but the truth, he said, is that he did it because of how much having peer support helped back when he was trying to get back on his feet.

“When Bob offered me the chance to open it back up, I jumped at the chance, because I thought we have to do something,” he said. “I think sometimes it’s possible the reason I do this is very selfish; it’s to help me.”

Hoover has remarried in the years since returning to Fort Dodge. He still loves walking the trails outdoors, at Dolliver Park, Ledges State Park, or elsewhere around the state.

“I enjoy writing short stories,” he said. “I have written I bet close to 500 or 600 short stories. I never had any published, because I don’t even try. I just write them for me.”

Although he’s thought of retiring, Hoover said his work keeps him from just sitting at home with nothing to do. And, of course, making a difference is important to him.

“It is a lot of work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It is so cool to know you are making a difference in people’s lives. And by doing that, knowing that they’re making a difference in mine.”