She founded Restoration Project on the Montessori model. "My mother started the first Montessori school in North Carolina. Our work here is based on Montessori principles and on constructionism. Stations are set up, and people choose where they want to work. We have a facilitator who looks after the different stations."
As part of their training, participants work on jobs brought in by consumers. Other upholstery businesses in the area don't resent the competition, according to Newell.
"The other businesses have reacted very well," she said. "At first they didn't think we were any competition, but now they realize that we are. But we're different: We don't work that fast, our product is our people.
"We charge less than the going rate. I think that's required as part of nonprofit status, but we're only about 10% less. But we're not that much competition. The fact that we take longer to do the job makes a difference. Our customers are loyal, and they're also our supporters, the source of much of our funding."
Participants attend the project two days a week and are supposed to spend some of the time away from the work environment preparing to look for outside work. "A person absorbs what they've learned after they do an exercise, which is why you need three days away after working," Newell explained. "Everything we do here is normal vocational training, skills built on top of skills, problem-solving. It is empowering if you want a person to go forward."
While participants learn a useful trade and are helped to find a real-world job, Newell said that the project's focus includes a broader agenda. "Our participants go through the normal stages of recovery. First they work on acquiring transportation, getting a driver's license, and then a car. Then they work on housing. They learn to advocate for themselves on medications. In about six months, they're usually ready to get a job."
Newell added that a consulting psychiatrist monitors patients' progress, but, "Our program is really based on educational models rather than psychiatric models. We don't treat our participants like 'people with mental illness,' whatever that means. We don't treat them as patients. The first thing I discovered was that they understood my jokes; they're not really much different than my students in my physics classes.
"I reject completely the idea that people with mental illness don't excel. Many of them are smart and talented people. If you treat them like great people, pretty soon they start feeling like great people."