BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — It’s been nine years since James gave up drinking and drugs. “Last November marked nine years,” James said. “I chose to quit drinking and doing drugs, and deal with my mental illness.” Although he is busy working two janitorial jobs, every Friday James goes to the Wernert Center in Toledo for a Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA) meeting. DRA, for individuals living with both mental illness and substance use disorders, has helped James stay sober and on a path to recovery. “It’s helped me stay out of trouble. It helps me make the right decisions, be honest, tell the truth and stay on task,” he said. James is one of thousands of individuals with mental illness being served by the Wernert Center, which on any given day can be packed with people shoulder to shoulder, said Scott Sylak, executive director of the Mental Health & Recovery Services Board of Lucas County. The board is contributing up to $2.2 million and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services up to $500,000 toward an 8,843-square-foot expansion of the Wernert Center. The recovery campus development will include hydroponic gardening, a greenhouse, a fountain and pavilions, said center director Kelly Skinner. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Wednes-day, July 26 at 1:00 p.m. at 208 W. Woodruff Ave. in Toledo. This is a momentous occasion for a program that started in the early 1990s with pizza and a rented room in the old Flower Hospital, said Thomas Wernert’s widow, Rose Anne. The director of the Mental Health Recovery Board for 30 years, Thomas was passionate about helping others at a time when many individuals with mental illness simply went to the doctor’s office and went home. “Tom felt that everybody should have a place to go to share conversation with friends,” Rose Anne said. “It started with a Friday afternoon meeting with pizza, then it just seemed to roll. Then they opened the Wernert Center – it’s really a little bright gem right in the heart of Toledo.” Inside the cheery, yellow building, students attend support meetings for anger, depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. The Wernert Center also provides living skills, from budgeting, housing, cooking and exercise to coping and relationship techniques. Peer socialization, education on health and developing relationships with each other – these are the foundation to a solid recovery program, Sylak said. “We’ve witnessed it with our own eyes,” he said. In Lucas County, there are 31,000 individuals with mental health needs, an increase of 3 to 4 percent annually. That increase is in part due to the recognition that mental illness and addiction are tied together; that mental illness is a health-related issue, not a personal deficit; and that socialization is imperative to recovery. “The groundbreaking is a huge day,” Sylak said. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to support people and help them achieve their goals in life.” For James, who won’t be able to attend the groundbreaking due to his busy work schedule, the Wernert Center classes have helped him move toward one of his goals: moving out of a group home. He has a roommate lined up and is preparing to take that next step soon. For more information on The Wernert Center, visit www.wernertcenter.org.