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Former support group director looks for different ways to provide comfort

By Patti S. Borda

Monday - 4/25/2011, 6:40am  ET

Sarah Knutson (Frederick News-Post)
Sarah Knutson helps others direct their lives toward goals. (Frederick News-Post)

Sarah Knutson has stepped onto a new path to spread mental health just by going upstairs at the headquarters of On Our Own of Frederick County.

Until a few months ago, she was the executive director of On Our Own, which is a peer support group that provides a meeting place, education and activities for people who have been diagnosed with any sort of mental illness.

The center complements professional medical care in many instances, Knutson said.

"What we offer is different," she said.

Some people drop by for a little while occasionally, and others stay the day. The center is open every day. What most people who drop by share, she said, is a feeling of not always fitting in -- in what others might call a normal society.

Knutson has found herself feeling out of place among people who strain to be so polite that the honesty disappears, sometimes hiding dramatically eccentric talents. She is not comfortable at a cocktail party, she said.

Great gifts and talents often grace those she knows through On Our Own, Knutson said, but other characteristics strike the outside community as odd, "a bit strange or uncouth."

"I fit so much better in a community where people are honest," she said. "We're about building ... a community where the world of neurodiversity can fit in one room and be celebrated."

At the Frederick site at 217 and 219 N. Market St., comfortable chairs, sofas, computer terminals and books await use by the eager and the weary.

The rooms downstairs accommodate klatches and silent corners.

Downstairs, in the back of the building, the new executive director, Alan Feinberg, toils over the management and bookkeeping details that keep the state-funded On Our Own running. Those are the tasks that Knutson found beyond her comfort level -- she says they drained her mind and spirit.

Upstairs, Knutson has carved out a new mission for herself that involves those who want to direct their lives forward toward goals. It serves those who want more than the unstructured activities and solitude downstairs.

Knutson and associates offer regularly scheduled sessions for recovery, yoga, exploring happiness, Bible study and self-expression. Some are working toward educational and professional goals.

"We kind of had two communities (downstairs and upstairs). ... We're all committed to developing ourselves and community building," she said.

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