Bell Socialization celebrates 50th anniversary

Julia Scheib

Fifty years ago, many of York's mentally ill residents lived in a state mental hospital in Harrisburg, according to Bell Socialization Services Executive Director Ike Hileman.

York countians traveled to Harrisburg to volunteer at the facility, where many lived from their teen years into old age, he said.

In 1964, legislation was passed that said government mental hospitals must eventually close and their patients integrated into society, he said. Former York residents who had lived in the facility for decades were released back into the community.

Meghan Smith, left, and Jackie Dahlheimer, center, of Pop-Up Yoga York, add their donation to the can held by Janel Fox, right, with Bell Socialization Services, as they join non-profits Family First Health, Downtown Inc., Leg Up Farm and York County Literacy Council assemble at Central Market to promote #GivingTuesday, as a collaborative effort to improve their local communities,  in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Supporters can donate online to the paticipating organization of their choice at: (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

"They ended up living in flophouses or very low-cost housing," he said.

Reintegration wasn't always successful.

"Often, they ended up cycling back into the hospitals," he said.

To help these mentally ill people, many of whom were isolated and had few resources, the same volunteers who had visited them in the state hospital organized a social club for them. They called it the Bell Club. It was the beginning of Bell Socialization Services, which was registered as an association in 1966.

According to a history compiled by Hileman, the original purpose of the club was “to provide opportunities for social experiences for people with emotional problems who have received or are receiving professional help.”

The first program the Bell Club offered was a weekly activity night at a church in the city, Hileman said.

Growth: "As it developed, it grew," said Averie Clark, director of community engagement at the nonprofit. Last year, the organization served more than 1500 people in York and Adams counties, she said.

The emphasis on socializing is still there, she said, but now Bell offers much more to the community, including treatment, job training and placement in independent housing for the intellectually disabled and mentally ill and an emergency homeless shelter for families.

In hopes of raising awareness of the services it provides, the nonprofit is doing several things to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

New logo: Last year Bell held a contest and chose from six submitted logo designs. Local artist Jean Klinedinst's design was picked. It features an image of an old-fashioned bell and the slogan, "Empowering lives. Every. Day. For 50 years!"

Using the image of the bell was important, Klinedinst said, because the bell is an emblem of the dark history of mental health treatment and how far society has come in improving it.

According to national organization Mental Health America's website, in the early days of treatment for mental health it was a common practice to restrain patients using chains and shackles. In 1965, that organization asked mental hospitals for their old chains and shackles, took them to a foundry and melted them down to make a bell to represent hope.

Klinedinst said she used a photo of the original "bell of hope" in her design.

Sculpture: Patrick Sells, who has created several sculptures in downtown York, is working on a design that will incorporate an actual metal bell donated to the organization years ago.

Clark said she's not sure yet where in the city the sculpture will be placed, but hopes it will be in a high-traffic area.

Sells said he's still in the sketching stage and is working with members of the organization to settle on the final design, but that the sculpture may involve a sort of puzzle where participants must figure out how to ring the bell.

Big Bed Race: On April 23 during Go Green in the City, Bell will hold a Big Bed Race downtown. After paying an entry fee, participants will race on homemade, decorated wheeled beds they've put together.

Bed races were popular decades ago, Clark said, and have since fallen out of favor.

Bell employees made their own racing bed for the York Halloween Parade. "We had a lot of fun with it," she said. "We hope other people will too."

First Pitch sponsorship: Thanks to donations from businesses, Bell will be the First Pitch sponsor for the York Revolution's 2016 season.

A representative of the organization will throw the ceremonial first pitch at each home game and Bell will make a 20-second announcement at each game, giving the organization the opportunity to educate audience members about the work it does.

— Reach Julia Scheib at