Imagine what it would be like to hear voices in the morning as you were dressing for work or to see a person whose head appeared to be detached from his body as you were running to the bus stop.

Most of us will never experience these mental distortions.These are the types of obstacles - along with prejudice and misunderstanding in the workplace - that confront the long-term mentally ill as they try to hold down regular jobs.

But the obstacles can be overcome, as proven by The Breakthrough Club, a Wichita, Kan., program that helps the mentally ill beat daunting odds to become valuable employees.

Breakthrough, a vocational and social rehabilitation program, places members in entry-level, low-stress jobs at businesses ranging from national corporations to small Wichita firms.

The program is modeled on Fountain House, a 42-year-old program in New York.

"Our whole focus is the philosophy that folks with a mental illness can be empowered and enabled to take charge of their own lives and that they have the right to meaningful work," said Katie Reese, assistant director of Breakthrough Club.

Members of The Breakthrough Club have illnesses such as schizophrenia, bi-polar affective disorder, commonly known as manic depression, anxiety disorders and depression. Their illnesses are expected to persist for a long period.

"The thing that creates the problem with the work is the illness cycles," Reese said. "You can be extremely stable, and for some reason, the illness will cycle (recur), and you get sick again and you lose your job. Then you get a job, then the illness cycles. Pretty soon no one wants to hire you because you've had this job and this job and this job."

Breakthrough Club members regain stamina, self-confidence and good work habits through temporary job placements.

Placements usually last from as little as three to as long as nine months. After holding these jobs, a Breakthrough participant may feel confident enough to find a regular 40-hour a week job and forgo disability payments, Reese said.

The program also benefits employers. The Breakthrough Club does all the training for a position and guarantees it will provide a replacement - even a Breakthrough Club staffer - if a member is ill or moves on to another job.

Executives at companies that have hired the mentally ill from The Breakthrough Club and the Fountain House programs say they often are model workers: never late, never absent, uncomplaining.

In Wichita, Sears Towne East store general manager Cliff Hagy has found that providing jobs for the mentally ill can be a boon for the company as well as Breakthrough Club members.

"They're excited and interested in getting a job that basically no one else wants," he said.

Breakthrough Club members hold two positions in Hagy's store: running a machine that crushes cardboard boxes for recycling and performing limited maintenance such as changing light bulbs or doing spot cleaning.

Hagy said he once spoke about Breakthrough to a group of professionals.

"Most people don't want these jobs," he told them. "People from Breakthrough look at it the same way someone else would a promotion."

Hagy and other employers in The Breakthrough Club program require members to meet the same standards as other employees. "They have to follow the same rules and regulations as another employee. We don't prop them up."

Breakthrough Club member Ron Sanders, 34, said the most significant result of his job placements was regaining confidence after being unemployed for five years.