Optimum Performance Institute (OPI) is a coed community based program for young people ages 17 to 25. In the process of my visit I met several participants; all looked pretty normal for that age group, including the girl rushing off to a college class with spiked hair and eyes blackened with makeup. I met several residents in their apartments, and although the apartments looked lived in, they were cleaner and more picked up than those of most young single people of the same age. I presume that being cleaner than typical young people on their own was a reflection of the influence of OPI staff who keep regular and frequent contact with the participants.
There are currently 26 participants in the program, with about 25 staff. OPI treats a very diverse population and mixes young adults with situational difficulties and depression with others who may have been unsuccessful in school due to family dynamics, anxiety or posttraumatic stress. About a third of the present participants came with serious drug abuse problems, and approximately one third have been diagnosed with Asperger's. The staff informed me they are very successful with Asperger's participants because they have enough staff to provide the support and training in social skills to help those participants and can offer one-to-one assistance as needed. The participants I met were friendly and rather out-going. They appeared comfortable in their apartments because it was their own space. Had I met them in any other context, I would not have been able to tell they were in a program, working on issues that caused them serious troubles.
The common denominator of all participants is they realize they needed some help. Before enrolling, the applicant must convince admissions they want to do something different. If admissions is convinced there is at least some element of acceptance they need help, and have some commitment to change, then the application is accepted. A six-month commitment is required although the average stay is ten months. At least one participant has been there for three years.
OPI is a community based program rather than a residential program. All the students live in apartments and the program is designed to transition them toward successful independent living. The program is very individualized. Staff base activities and experiences on the participants' interests, so in a real sense each participant has their own program, goals and experiences.
The basic outline of the program is two phases, with apartments dedicated to each phase. In Phase One, staff members live with the participants' 24-hours-a-day. There is a curfew and the participants' lives are about as structured as they can be within the context of apartment living. Participants stay in this phase at least three months based on the recommendations of the staff. Phase Two apartments are in a different area and the participants are more independent, but still have significant staff contact. This Phase also lasts for at least three months, with staff making the final decision as to when a participant has progressed enough to complete. After the two phases, if a participant chooses, their relationship changes to what is called Aftercare, which includes a higher degree of independence but still with a lot of staff involvement. The staff becomes more of a role model and mentor to the participants. Another follow-up option is called Outpatient, where participants see therapists on a scheduled basis, but the therapist plays more of the role of mentor and role model. Overall, the program works very hard to balance the differing needs of running a program for all the participants, while meeting the individual needs of each participant.
Executive Director Robert Fischer, MD, explains that the program is not diagnosis based. That is, they work with the participants from where they are mentally and emotionally, rather than working from some more abstract diagnosis that might or might not be accurate. Their three main focuses are academics, therapy and what might be called "Life."
The program provides whatever support and help is necessary to help the participants' complete high school, attend college or establish themselves into a career.
Therapy is an integral part of the program for each participant. This can include participating in AA or other specialized community groups and OPI's Residential Chemical Dependency Solutions Group. Since working in this field is always high stress, OPI has just started a regular staff group to help staff process the stresses that go along with working with young people with problems.
In what might be called support for "Life" training, the staff uses many tools to meet the interests of the participants. Some of the tools they have used to spark interest have been yoga, dance, boxing, sweat lodge and numerous other activities that one or more participants have expressed an interest in. These are all used as learning tools to support the goal of transitioning each participant into being an independent, responsible adult. Staff members are very flexible in promoting avenues that might provide a positive experience. Last year, some of the participants were involved with a trip to Peru as a horizon stretching special activity, and more trips like this are planned for the future.
Everyone we met, both participants and staff, were comfortable and dedicated. I was impressed by the positive attitudes all around. OPI emphasizes bringing lightness and play into their milieu and that showed, both in meetings with the staff and with the participants.
Although OPI is a new program, just about three years old, they seem to have found themselves and as a result their reputation is growing. After meeting the staff and participants, I can see why.