Since 2009, Lawrence DeFever has cooked up hearty comfort food for the people who have called Lourdes Wilson House a second home.
"It's old-school cooking, like grandma used to do -- to make you feel like you're at home; you're welcome in the house because you're getting a really good meal," he said.
The clubhouse for people recovering from mental illnesses has been a safe place where people such as DeFever can gather with other people going through the same kinds of issues and challenges in their lives -- people who understand and aren't judgmental.
But the house that has welcomed them with open arms closed its doors Thursday because of lack of funding.
"A lot of people over there are just lost as to what they're going to do," DeFever said.
Wilson House was designed to provide a safe, comfortable environment for people with long-term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression to socialize and learn life and job skills that will help them lead stable and fulfilling lives.
Lourdes Health Network spokeswoman Melanie Johnston told the Herald that Wilson House is closing as part of a recently announced restructuring of the network's health and mental health care services.
"In the restructure, we elected to eliminate that service," Johnston said.
Three staff members were laid off and one is taking another position within the health network, she said.
Lourdes officials earlier this month attributed the organizational restructure that resulted in 19 people being laid off to the rising number of uninsured patients and federal and state budget cuts that are affecting the hospital's bottom line.
Lourdes officials have been bracing for significant cuts to its Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements as the state and federal governments contemplate cutbacks for hospitals such as Lourdes with the "Critical Access Hospital" designation.
Hospitals with the designation get higher levels of reimbursement for treating Medicaid and Medicare patients than hospitals without the designation as an incentive to see those patients.
Lourdes officials have said in the past two months that losing critical access status and the resulting cuts to reimbursements could put Lourdes millions of dollars in the red, causing the hospital to re-evaluate the services it is able to provide -- including mental health services, which hospital officials have said typically operate at a loss.
DeFever said when Lourdes officials announced the Wilson House closure, they told club members that it costs the health network about $300,000 per year to operate the house -- and that all of that money comes out of Lourdes' pockets with no outside help.
Programs or positions at Wilson House have been under consideration for cuts before. For example, a $50,000 contribution from Goodwill Industries of the Columbia in March 2010 paid for a job developer staff position that otherwise would have been eliminated at the time.
Johnston said the network has done its best to keep the house open for its members but can no longer absorb the cost.
Nan Bopp, president of the Tri-City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the loss of Wilson House is "heart-breaking" for advocates and family of people with mental illnesses.
"There is no substitute," she said. "It is a huge loss."
She said the clubhouse offered people living with mental illnesses a sense of community that they don't get anyplace else in the Tri-Cities.
"I just can't help but think this is going to be a huge effect on their personal lives," Bopp said.
She's also concerned about what the closure of Wilson House bodes for Lourdes' other mental health services.
Her group has written letters to lawmakers to urge them not to make cuts to critical access hospitals, arguing that cuts will hurt Lourdes' ability to function.
And the community can't afford to lose Lourdes' mental health services on top of other cuts that already have come, she said.
Budget cuts already have resulted in the loss of outpatient mental health services for people on state-funded Medicaid and the elimination of the "Disability Lifeline" monthly cash grant for people who are unemployable because of a disability.
Many people with mental illnesses that prevented them from working relied on that program for a meager income -- $197 per month at the time the program ended last fall -- and Bopp fears they now will end up homeless.
"Some of these services provided were to make sure they had safe and productive lifestyles," she said. "Now, the support systems are being pulled away."
DeFever described himself as "kind of a mess" when he first came to Wilson House in 2009.
"I couldn't go to stores by myself. I could barely leave my apartment without having a panic attack," he said.
But Wilson House helped him by giving him a focus and allowing him to channel his passion for cooking into an activity that helped others.
"Finding something fulfilling to do during the day is a challenge for people who can't work," DeFever said. "That's what Wilson House did for a lot of people over there."
He said he now has the stability and confidence to find another volunteer position but worries about the other club members, whom he said smiled through their fears as they gathered for the last time Thursday.
"They were fairly jovial," he said. "They talked about some things from the past, discussed what Wilson House did for them. Underneath all the joviality and camaraderie, you could still feel the solemnness, the fact that people were distressed and saddened by the fact it was being shut down."