Consumer’s vegetable garden offers bountiful harvest, therapeutic escape amid pandemic

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Gardening can improve your physical health. It invites you to get outside, exercise, and eat healthy food.

But can the activity also improve your mental wellbeing? For Lance V., a consumer at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc., the answer is a resounding yes.

In May, as the nation prepared for another summer of restrictions and uncertainty, Lance turned his sights to the patch of unused land behind the Cranbury Neck group home in Middlesex County.

A plan in mind, Lance teamed up with other group home residents and three staff members: Nursing Services Coordinator Rena Sandomir, Residential Program Manager Christy Hudnett, and Sr. Counselor Elisha Dupree. Together, they tilled the soil, planted an assortment of vegetable seeds and cornstalks, and transformed the once-empty space into a sprawling garden.

Since then, the garden has produced tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, baby Japanese eggplants, and bell peppers. Lance and the residents of the Cranbury Neck group home have enjoyed these vegetables all summer, preparing several nutritious and tasty meals.

“About twice a week, we gather vegetables from the garden and use them to make a nice dinner,” Lance says. “We’ve made cucumber salads, sliced tomato sandwiches, and an eggplant and squash sauté. The veggies are always delicious, and everyone really enjoys picking and preparing them.”

The garden has also been a source of solace for Lance. Much like his mindfulness exercises, he says gardening has improved his mental wellbeing, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.  

“I tend to the garden every morning, around 7:00 a.m., making sure the plants get enough water, weeding, and anything else that is needed,” he says. “It’s therapeutic and relaxing, and it helps distract me from current events and anything negative I may be thinking or feeling.

“It also feels great to see the results of my work—to watch the plants grow and know that I helped care for them.”    

Lance, who will turn 71 in November, has been a consumer at SERV since 2016 and a resident at the Cranbury Neck group home for just over two years. A former teacher, he holds a degree in history from Rutgers University.

Lance says his experience at SERV has been “extremely positive.” He has formed a lot of great relationships with staff members who always have his “best interests in mind” and have helped him realize his "full potential."

He has formed close bonds with many consumers, as well. “We are like a family here,” he says. “We all get along well, and I enjoy the comradery.

“I have a great support system at SERV, and at this point in my life, I really value all of these close relationships I have formed.”

With the end of summer in sight, Lance is already looking forward to next year. He says he plans to expand the vegetable garden, adding even more plants, which he hopes will produce another bountiful harvest.

Once the pandemic is over, Lance would also like to volunteer at a local nursing home or for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“I want to give back,” he says. “Despite my problems, I do feel like, in my life, I’ve been fortunate in many ways. I have a lot of great family members and friends who care about me and have helped me. And I’d like to help others who do not have the support system that I do.”

Travis C. shines in new role, sets goals for the future

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After moving into the Stepping Stones group home in Mercer County last October, Travis C. set two goals for himself: (1) find a full-time job and (2) achieve financial independence.

“I had just been discharged from the hospital, and I had nothing—no license, no money, no idea of what I was going to do,” Travis says. “I was so grateful to be at SERV and for the opportunity to put my life back together. Basically, I was starting from scratch, and I knew the first step toward recovery and independence was having a job and a steady income.”

Although finding employment during a pandemic proved difficult, Travis never gave up. He scoured the internet, submitted countless applications, and eventually landed a position as a fulfillment associate at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville.

Most people would have felt overwhelmed starting a new position in December, right before the holidays (Amazon’s busiest time of year), but not Travis.

Travis thrived in Amazon's fast-paced environment. He even drew the attention of the company’s management team, when his name appeared second on a list of the ten top-performing staff members at his shipping dock.

“The rankings were based on speed and accuracy,” Travis says. “I’ve always been a hard worker. I wrestled and played sports in high school, and I even had three jobs while I was incarcerated. I worked in the laundry room, the store, and the workshop.

“I’m glad that people have noticed me at Amazon. Seeing my name on that list was definitely a reminder of how far I’ve come and that good things will happen if I put the effort in.”  

Today, Travis remains focused on his financial independence. He says he no longer relies on public assistance, often volunteers for extra shifts at the warehouse, and has grown his savings significantly. He has also started contributing to his work’s 401(k) plan.

Clearly, Travis is devoted to his recovery, but he claims he would have never accomplished the goals he set for himself if he didn’t have “so many amazing people” in his corner.    

“For me, there is nothing more important than family,” he says. “I have around thirty cousins, and they’ve all supported me at every turn...I cannot thank them enough.”

“I’ve also had the support of a lot of great people from SERV,” he adds. “Ilana Berger is the first name that comes to mind. She has been there for me every step of the way and always has my best interests at heart. She has helped me schedule appointments, find transportation, and stay organized and informed. She even helped me identify an opportunity for housing in the future.”

What’s next? Now that he feels financially secure and comfortable at his new job, Travis wants to further his education.  

Prior to his incarceration, Travis attended community college in Brookdale and Bergen, where he majored in business. He also spent a summer abroad at the Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic, studying marketing, art, and architecture.

Travis will pick up where he left off. He currently has an open application at Coastal Carolina University and plans to pursue a degree in finance.

While Travis will likely face more obstacles on his path to recovery and independence, he says he isn’t “afraid of the challenge” and that he is willing to do “whatever it takes” to reach his full potential.

“Nothing is ever easy, I know that,” he says. “Sure, these past few years have been a struggle, but I’ve also learned how strong I am and that I can handle whatever the world throws at me.

“I hope my story can inspire people. Even if things aren’t going well, keep fighting and keep trying. Eventually, it will change.”

SERV opens new program for individuals battling substance use disorder

As New Jersey continues to experience alarming rates of opioid use and drug-related deaths during the pandemic, SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. is confronting the issue head-on by rolling out new services and eliminating barriers to recovery for those battling substance use disorder. 

On Monday, September 13, the organization celebrated the opening of a substance use disorder outpatient treatment program at its Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton.

A true “one-stop-shop,” SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic provides community-based, integrated care for individuals with complex mental health, substance use, and physical health needs together in one convenient location.   

“At SERV, we are dedicated to reaching people with substance use disorder and providing them the services and support they need to break the cycle of their disease and live meaningful, productive lives,” said SERV Centers COO Pauline Simms, who was instrumental in bringing this new program to Passaic County.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to work on solutions to the mental health and substance use crises in our state, and this new program is another step in the right direction,” Simms added.

“We provide a truly integrated model of care at our Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton, and we are incredibly excited for this opportunity to expand our services and open the door to recovery for individuals and families who have been affected by the opioid epidemic.”    

The announcement of this new program comes at a critical time for New Jersey, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drastic increase in the number of people struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorder.

According to state data, 1,626 New Jersey residents died from an overdose during the first half of this year.

At this rate, the state would surpass its all-time high number of drug-related deaths per year, which was set in 2020, by more than 6%. 

And New Jersey is not the only state experiencing a spike in overdose deaths.

Drug-related deaths in the United States hit a record high of 93,331 last year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 250 people have died from an overdose per day in 2021. The CDC also reports that more than 13% of Americans claim to have either started or increased substance use during the pandemic.

Experts say the effects of the pandemic have driven the surge in overdoses by heightening feelings of stress and anxiety, creating financial insecurity, forcing people to sacrifice social connections, and disrupting public health and support services.

According to Patricia Kazanowski, the Project Director for SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic, expanding access to treatment and eliminating barriers to recovery for those suffering from substance use disorder is "crucial to fighting this epidemic."

“Now, more than ever, there’s a pressing need for treatment programs in our communities,” Kazanowski said.

“Our program offers a wide range of services, including ambulatory withdrawal management for opioids, intensive outpatient treatment, and medication to support recovery.”

“Our team of professionals stand ready to provide support and healing to those who need it," she added. "We understand that the recovery journey is different for everyone, and we tailor our services to meet the needs of each person we serve.”

One major benefit of outpatient treatment is convenience.

Outpatient treatment programs are designed to accommodate outside obligations and can serve as an effective and flexible option for those looking to recover from substance use disorders.

“Overnight stays at a hospital or residential facility can be a major deterrent for individuals seeking recovery,” said LaTricia Gordon, the Director of Nursing for SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic. “In our program, however, there is greater flexibility of scheduling.”

“Individuals can continue to manage their careers and other responsibilities while undergoing outpatient treatment. Additionally, they will be able to apply the skills they learn in treatment immediately in their home setting while still having the support of the SERV team and recovering peers.”

SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic also offers on-site pharmacy services through Rapps Pharmacy, LLC. 

“Proven and safe medications like Suboxone have the potential to reduce withdrawal symptoms and save lives,” Gordon said. “Once prescribed, we will ensure individuals have access to the medication they need as soon as possible, which can be crucial during the early stages of recovery.”

The importance of National Recovery Month: what it is and why we celebrate it

In addition to expanding access to care, SERV is continuing its efforts to increase awareness and combat the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders.

SERV recognizes September as National Recovery Month—a celebration of the 23 million people who recover from substance use disorder each year. Throughout the month, the organization is helping to reinforce the positive message that behavioral health is essential to overall health, that treatment is effective, and that people can and do recover.

The 2021 National Recovery Month theme is “Recovery is For Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community,” and it serves as a reminder to people with substance use disorder and those who support them that no one is alone in the journey through recovery.

“The importance of National Recovery Month cannot be understated,” said Allison Dickens, the Director of SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton. “It shines a light on people who have struggled with substance use disorder, recovered, and went on to live fulfilling lives.”

“There is a lot of emphasis put on the opioid crisis and the lives it has claimed, which is necessary, but it’s also important to remember that there are success stories—to let people know that recovery is possible and even probable with the right treatment,” she added. “Too many people are still unaware that prevention works and that mental health and substance use disorders can be treated, just like other health problems.”

Ways to support National Recovery Month

One of the most effective ways to celebrate Recovery Month is to share resources and information about substance use disorder and recovery. This month, we encourage you to take some time to learn more about substance use disorder and research the best ways to care for individuals battling this disease. Share what you learn with friends and family. Also consider sharing information about treatment programs, crisis hotlines, and these downloadable materials about preventing overdose on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn.

Another way to show your support is by attending an event. There are several themed awareness events taking place in New Jersey and virtually during National Recovery Month. For an updated list of recovery month events, check out the NJ-CARS September event calendar or the official Faces and Voices of Recovery calendar for Recovery Month events.

If you know someone in recovery or who may be struggling with substance use disorder, you should consider reaching out to them. During this stressful time of social distancing and isolation, many feel disconnected, and something as simple as a phone call or video chat can have a major impact on someone in recovery. 

Residential Counselors lead weekly groups for consumers

For more than a year, the SERV team has been laser-focused on providing care to consumers while ensuring safety.

This is no easy task, but Residential Counselors Sabrina Manasse and Diane Schaefer have been up to the challenge since day one of the pandemic.

Every Friday, Sabrina Manasse leads relaxation and exercise groups for consumers in Middlesex. For these groups, she meets with consumers in their apartments, and she plans her lessons according to their individual needs.

In other words, if she feels the a consumer needs to decompress, she will focus on stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or art therapy. However, if she believes they should get out and stretch their legs or break a sweat, she will encourage physical exercise.

The classes Sabrina holds and goals she sets for consumers are always inclusive and attainable for all who participate. She also tries to make her groups as enjoyable as possible while still being productive.  

Recently, for instance, she took a group of consumers to Johnson Park in Piscataway Township. After a brisk stroll around the park, they visited an animal haven, where they saw pigs, goats, alpacas, deer, a mini horse, and many other exciting animals.

Much like Sabrina, Diane Schaefer meets with consumers at their apartments every Monday to hold her healthy cooking and baking group.

For the group, Diane brings all necessary cooking ingredients to an apartment, where she works to create a healthy recipe with consumers. After they assist her in preparing the food, the group sits down to enjoy the meal together.

With this group, the consumers benefit from learning easy recipes for healthy meals that they can continue to create on their own. Cooking and baking have also proven to be great activities for reducing stress.