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Tia Burroughs Clayton, MSS
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Alyson Ferguson, MPH
Chief Operating Officer

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Vivian Figueredo, MPA
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

Derrick M. Gordon, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Georgia Kioukis, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Samantha Matlin, PhD
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Caitlin O'Brien, MPH
Director of Learning & Community Impact

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Joe Pyle, MA

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Nadia Ward, MEd, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Bridget Talone, MFA
Grants Manager for Learning and Community Impact

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Hitomi Yoshida, MSEd
Graduate Fellow

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Ashley Feuer-Edwards, MPA
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Ionia Village Life


Ionia Village Life Logo

Program Website
Winner Status:
Program Type:
Counseling and Support
Target Population:
Individuals with Serious Mental Illness

Nature of the Problem

People who experience mental illness often experience financial challenges and even extreme poverty. Lack of adequate finances can often lead to over-reliance on parents or other family; terrible low quality food leading to nutritional deficiencies; isolation due to stigmas and inadequate transportation, and even homelessness. Slowly, without adequate income, people fall out of society’s mainstream and the normal social supports that society has in place. To compound things, this can further lead to overpowering feelings of anxiety, as well as domestic abuse, substance abuse, negative thinking, damage to hope and spirit, and self harm. However, it is impossible at this time for the governmental aid programs to pay enough funds to keep each mentally ill person financially solvent with their own home, car, proper food budget, utilities and phone, never mind enough extra funds for clothing, education, legal services, and recreational opportunities. Even if all they receive excellent medical care, without these basic needs met, most people are unlikely to successfully manage or recover their health. What can be done to improve the income levels and quality of life for the large majority of US citizens who are experiencing mental illness and who are not independently wealthy?

Program Description

Ionia is a small non-profit village started in 1987, and funded entirely by four poverty level families, whose adult members experienced mental illness. Thirty years ago, with nothing but our SSI disability checks, we bought 5 acres of land for $300 down and $300 a month. We camped on the land for one year, participating in daily group meetings together, hand firewood and simple land based activities. We pooled our families’ annual Alaska Permanent Fund checks (a state savings account which disperses $1,500 per year, per person) and built a road, well, and then four 24×28 lovely log cabins, learning how to build safely, together. We used our meager incomes to create a food coop; we bought one car, collectively; we cooked healthy foods for our families and watched over each other’s children when needed. We were patient with one another and held space for our issues. We slowly learned that by collaborating, we were able to care for our families, where we couldn’t manage alone. We learned how to cooperatively manage a non-profit, and we set up a board of trustees. Thus, Ionia, a healthy peer support village, built and run by people who experience mental illness, was born.


By joining together, and pooling resources, people living in poverty can find security: For example – at Ionia, one car serves multiple households; food is bought wholesale; vital household tools and equipment, such as a hammer, blender, computer, magazines, books, games, bicycles are cooperatively shared. Additionally, by creating situations in which people share, there is a built-in feeling of mutual support. When people need each other to thrive, they will look past issues which usually separate families. This is therapeutic for people who experience mental illness, because they often feel stigmatized, discriminated against, or shamed because of their symptoms. By creating a culture of mutual accountability and egalitarian decision making, most people will learn to compromise, and to earn ones keep in a group. We become more livable as our symptoms do not define our identities. Without authorities creating rules, there is no-one to blame if we are not successful.


Ionia is known in Alaska as a group of people who experienced the most difficult mental illnesses yet found an alternate, innovative way of life which not only cares for our own families, but provides education, support and solace for many others as well. We have been able to weather many crisis’ without expensive interventions, using 24 hour peer support as our first line of defense. The opportunity to be safe, to be housed and fed and earn ones keep through simple seasonal activities such as cleaning, cooking, berry picking, gardening, building and being with children, and to be valued, held and seen by peers along the way, has had good results. Many have come to stay and learn. A local physician has written his doctoral thesis on us. We now have regular interns, news articles, requests for presentations, and opportunities to teach and give meaningful input at policy levels.


This model can be replicated anywhere, anytime. It can be smaller: three people equitably sharing an apartment, cooking, and a bicycle. It can be bigger: hundreds of people creating an intentional mental health peer community, with services included. The models must share these components: 1) The decisions are made using egalitarian methods by the people who are benefiting (self-governance). 2) The members are in similar life situations/financial levels (mutuality). 3) The endeavor has a spirit of adventure, and be free to make up it’s own values (empowerment). 4) At least half of the members must have some regular income, even if small disability incomes. We have found that local businesses, food buying clubs, transportation systems, builders and maintenance men, medical providers and social services will provide less expensive, more flexible and innovative supports for a group, rather than an individual. There is always a visionary professional around to help out.


Thirty years later, Ionia has grown to support fifty full-time residents; and 20-30 guests each year. We have built ten beautiful log homes; a huge community center and straw/clay barn; we have organic gardens; we have managed multiple outreach programs, participated meaningfully in state policy, managed many grant projects; manage a homeschooling program and a shared transportation system. However, our mission and day to day existence of the residents remains the same – by pooling our resources, people who experience mental illness can secure the basics they need: safe and dignified housing, reliable transportation, good food, friendship and belonging. From there, they can begin to recover their health and manage their lives to find success, despite their symptoms. The original founding families found health and satisfaction in an alternate way of life. They raised two dozen talented children. Since then, hundreds of people have stayed at Ionia with positive outcomes.