SOUTH PORTLAND – Lisa Mace and Ami Arbassio were browsing avocados at the Hannaford supermarket on Cottage Road when it occurred to Arbassio that she wanted a couple of jugs of milk, too.

“I can get those for you,” said Mace. “Will you be all right here?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” replied Arbassio.

As I walked with Mace to the milk coolers, she told me how Arbassio has been getting better at doing some little things by herself, such as picking out her own vegetables alone for a few minutes.

Mace is a community support worker for Spring Harbor Community Services, and Arbassio, who has a mental illness, is one of the 15 people she works with to help them maintain their independence.

So while out with Arbassio on a recent morning, Mace wanted to make sure she helped Arbassio as much as she could, while allowing her to try new things. Things that might seem incredibly simple to most of us.

Before we went to Hannaford, we took Arbassio to a Portland medical lab for some blood work related to her condition. She walked into the lab alone, something Mace said she could not always do.

“She’s made a lot of progress since I’ve known her,” said Mace, sitting in the pickup truck she uses to do errands with her clients. “There are still a lot of things she’s not comfortable doing alone. “

Arbassio, 36, agrees.

She has been hospitalized for mental illness in the past and has no family in the area. And she doesn’t drive. If not for Mace, she doesn’t think she’d ever be able to live on her own.

“It would take me all day long or more to do what I can do with Lisa in an hour and a half,” said Arbassio. “This is a necessity for me. Since Lisa’s been helping me, my anxiety has gotten better. “

Because she deals with people with mental illness, Mace has to be licensed and certified. Before getting into this line of work about 16 years ago, she worked in restaurants and bars, so she’s used to listening to people.

When she started volunteering with people who were recovering from addiction, she found that she really enjoyed helping people in that way.

Without going into specifics about Arbassio’s condition, Mace told me she works with people who have delusions, hallucinations or talk to themselves. Some have verbally abused her.

Mace not only helps her clients with errands, she also spends hours helping them fill out paperwork for medical benefits or to find housing.

Besides helping individuals, Mace believes that she’s helping everyone by working to keep people out of long-term care facilities, because long-term care costs a lot more than a program like the one she works for.

“I feel like a big part of my job is to keep people out of the hospital,” says Mace.

This is not always easy. Some patients may go off their medication or start getting worse for other reasons. But in her job, Mace is part of a team at Spring Harbor that includes mental health professionals, so she has lots of support and people with whom she can consult.

On the morning I followed Mace, she and Arbassio first went to Arbassio’s lab appointment, then through the drive-through window at a bank, where Arbassio cashed a check. Then we went grocery shopping and helped Arbassio get the things into her apartment.

With 15 clients in need of similar help, Arbassio spends a lot of time in her truck. While she was driving around with Arbassio, the two played a game that involved trying to guess the name of the artist playing on the radio.

“Who’s that?” Mace said.

“Pearl Jam,” Arbassio answered quickly.

Mace told me part of her job is to be someone to talk to — not just about important things like medicine or health, but also about everyday things.

“Everybody wants to be heard,” said Mace.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]