In his job at a local pizzeria and bakery, Mike Ripperger serves up more than dough and toppings.
“I like to put smiles on people’s face,” he says. “I bring not only pizza, but I bring smiles to the bakery.”
Despite his infectious laugh and joyful personality today, the road here wasn’t easy. More than 10 years ago, Mike lost his father, Randy. The loss sent him spiraling.
“I went into a really bad depression. My mom tried to get me out and about — like, ‘Let’s go to Walmart.’ Because I loved going to Walmart,” he explains. “I wouldn’t go outside the house. Just stare at the TV, play video games, use the restroom, eat. That’s all I did for three whole months.”
Mike says his depression worsened when he and his sister were taken from their mother. Living in a residential care facility, grappling with the absence of now both parents, Mike felt lost.
In 2015, Mike learned about Optimae LifeServices. He moved into one of Optimae’s residential sites in central Iowa, where he met staff members and fellow customers who impacted his life.
One individual in particular, Bob Robinson, helped Mike tremendously as he carried out Optimae’s mission of being “At your side. On your side.”
“If you needed somebody to talk to, we would go outside or go for a little drive, and we’d talk,” Mike says. “He was great staff.”
Today, after finding the right combination of medication and community connections, Mike is doing much better.
“I was holding a lot of stuff back. And they finally got me on the right meds, and I’ve had a lot of support by my friends.”
Mike says he enjoys joking around with his roommates, with whom he shares a duplex, as well as others around him. Through Optimae’s Community Integration (CI) program, Mike has been able to explore central Iowa, visiting local restaurants and attractions like the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Recently, their CI group served a meal at a men’s emergency shelter — Mike staffed the dessert station.
“We do a lot of activities that keep my mind and other people’s mind in good thoughts, and it gets us out of the duplexes for the day. Besides work, it gives me something to do.”
Baking pizzas with pride
Mike stays occupied with friends, CI activities and hobbies. But, speak with Mike for just a few minutes, and you’ll learn about one area that fosters the most pride: his job.
Soon after transitioning to Optimae, Mike began working at one of Optimae’s microbusinesses in Adel, now known as River to River Bakery & Pizza. Through trained job coaches, Optimae’s microbusinesses are designed to support individuals like Mike, called “customer-employees,” in their daily work. However, as one of the more seasoned customer-employees with nearly nine years under his belt, Mike jokes that he sometimes has to “job coach the job coach.”
The years of kitchen experience help Mike keep a cool head when orders start piling up. Mike’s manager, Mary Hawkins, says he has grown significantly when it comes to handling stressful situations.
“I work my hardest to get things done,” Mike says. “Sometimes, I just work so hard, I don’t know what time it is. Time’s going by, and I just go through my shift.”
In the kitchen, Mike stays busy sheeting dough, placing toppings, moving things to and from ovens and fulfilling orders — all while various timers beep left and right. When it gets hectic, Mike has developed a strong coping skill: singing.
“And, I figured it makes the pizzas go faster,” he says with a laugh. “That’s my joke: because they don’t want to hear me singing.”
As a valued member of the bakery team, Mike pitches ideas for new products. At the end of his shifts, he often experiments with any leftover dough, and he and his coworkers taste test the results.
“Because we’re going to have to compete with Domino’s,” he explains with a smile.
Growing through grief
Five months ago, Mike was dealt another blow when his grandpa, Frank, passed away. Thankfully, Mike has learned how to better manage his emotions since he lost his father in 2012. He’s been able to handle the loss of his grandpa in a healthy way, as well as continue to honor his father.
“Every Day of the Dead, I put up a shrine for my dad. I buy him his favorite treats, soda pop. I have his picture up. And I’ll probably be doing it for my grandpa this year, too.”
Mike tears up when he thinks about his grandpa, but he tries to stay strong.
“I think he’d rather me make sure Grandma’s OK, than just wallow in depression,” he says. “That’s one thing my grandma really appreciates — me calling on her, seeing how she’s doing.”
Caring for others is usually at the forefront of Mike’s mind. He checks on his grandma, sister and other family members regularly. He knows that some of his friends aren’t able to see their families for holidays and birthdays, so he buys presents for them.
“Because that’s what I would like,” he explains, “if I couldn’t go home to see my mom.”
Mike’s caring heart was poured into by those he’s met through Optimae, like Bob Robinson. He mentions other names: Sara, Lisa, Peg, Molly, Adam, Tim, Nick, Mohamed, Peter — and the list goes on.
“I’ve had a lot of good influences,” he says.
When it comes to his mental health, Mike admits not every day is perfect. But he also recognizes he’s come a long way.
“I used to have outbursts, and it wasn’t very good. I’d make people cry, and it’s just been a lot better,” he says. “I have those days that I fear the other half of me, the one that I keep caged up, the personality that I keep caged up in my head. Sometimes I fear that he’ll eventually come out again. But I don’t let that hold me back.”
One in five adults experience a mental illness in the United States.1 Mike says he thinks everyone needs to focus more on issues of mental health. And his biggest piece of advice for others who are struggling? Don’t go through it alone.
“Find someone or some place that can really help you. Not just take your money, but that can actually help you and try to stabilize you. There are people out there that you can talk to, like your parents or your friends. Or you can just ask for help.”
May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. By promoting understanding and conversations surrounding mental health conditions and removing barriers to treatment, Optimae hopes to better accomplish our goal of being “At your side. On your side” for our customers.