OXFORD – Several years ago Melinda Taylor weighed 500 pounds, was housebound and faced debilitating anxiety problems.

Today, she has dropped 300 pounds, runs 12 miles a day and is leading her peers at the Tri-County Mental Health Services day support program on Pottle Road in learning about nutrition as they tend their garden.

“I said to myself I’m miserable, I have heart problems. It’s do or die,” said Taylor of her effort to turn her life around with the help of a skills development program that services nearly 100 people in four locations. “Now if I miss a day, I’m miserable.”

The day support program was piloted in Rumford in March 2006. It now offers services to clients, or consumers, as participants are known, at all the Tri-County Mental Health Services clinic locations – in Rumford, Farmington, Oxford, Lewiston and Bridgton.

“This is not just a drop-in club. It’s a skills-based program. It’s been such a success,” said Tina Pelletier Clark, director of Tri-County Mental Health Services development and community relations.

The program, which meets several hours a day about three or fours times a week, is aimed at improving quality of life and functioning skills.

Peggy Newton, a licensed clinical social worker and unit manager at the Rumford site, wrote the year-long curriculum for the program. “I set it up in stages,” she said of the four components – understanding mental illness and medicines that treat symptoms, skills development, wellness and recovery, and finally peer support.

The programs teach people to manage daily tasks. In Oxford, where half of the group members are diabetic, the group decided to grow a garden during their study of wellness and healthy lifestyles. It’s a simple idea that program leaders say has had wide-ranging effect on the well-being of everyone involved.

“It’s a humble project but the most earnest undertaking,” said day support facilitator Meghan Chadbourne of the garden program.

With the support of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program, which provided a master gardener, consumers have planted and tended a 50- by 23-foot garden of flowers and vegetables.

The group prepares meals using produce from the garden. Members exercise, walk and do what it takes to be healthy. “They have even given up soda,” Chadbourne said.

The group is also preparing a cookbook, which will be available next year, with cooking tips they have learned in the on-site kitchen. Proceeds will support the garden next year.

The program, particularly the garden project, has created more than just a healthy lifestyle, its leaders said. It has created real change in the participants. A sense of comradeship has developed.

This is no ordinary group of participants. They are 10 to 15 members who live in the Oxford Hills and face severe and persistent mental illness that creates challenges for them every day.

“I stayed in my room and watched movies. I didn’t want to be with people,” said Roland Libby, proudly showing off the radishes he grew.

“We formed a bond,” said Roxanne Thomas as she and a dozen or so others mingled around the garden.

Organizers say the change has been remarkable with the group – many of whom came to the program with issues ranging from anger to isolation.

“I advocate for myself. I speak up. I know what I want,” Thomas said.

The stories go on and on as members talk about how the program has helped them.

“It helps me a lot,” agreed Tammy Houston. “I don’t have to be afraid of people.”

“You get the input from the others,” said Hebert Downs, who along with Chuck Baker said the garden project has gotten them not only out of their houses but into the fresh air.

Peer facilitation is an important part of the program, Newton said, and since the program began in Rumford more than a year ago, two consumers have graduated to being peer counselors.

The peer counselors are people who have received services through the Tri-County Mental Health Services. Newton said this aspect of the program is considered a key reason why the day support program has been such a success.

“We went through the whole first year and hired two people as peer support facilitators,” she said. “They’re feeling very empowered. They never thought anything like this could be real for them.”

Likewise, the consumers find a sympathetic ear to share information they might be uncomfortable talking about with program leaders.

The peer facilitator service has been so successful that the Maine Community Foundation has supported the program component through an $18,000 grant to be used over three years by the Oxford and Rumford sites.

Program coordinators say the program’s success can be seen in the dramatic reduction of members needing to be hospitalized for mental health issues.

“It’s awesome. It’s the most exciting program I have worked on in years,” Newton said.