By: Kathie Mitchell, Director
On April 13, at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, nine men participated in their final assignment before earning a graduation certificate. Each student gave an example in six words of what they learned during the 14-week recovery and reentry class. Here are some examples:
“How to deal with my anger.”
“Identifying my triggers is a must.”
“How to be a better person.”
“Fail to plan, plan to fail.”
“Anger turned inward, distorts reality always.”
“Changes we make, change our lives.”
As a supervisor and observer of this project for past seven years, I’ve been privileged to watch the growth of our students and the class facilitators as we shared information, introduced new concepts and provided a pathway for changes. The newest concept “Telling your story in six words” is an exercise brought to us earlier this year by Cabrini University Professor Catherine Beckowski. By looking at the examples above, you can see it works. Each of the statements relate to a topic we cover in the session and express a feeling or self-reflection.
“Thoughtful. Concise. Poignant. Insightful. Inspiring. Humbling.” These are the six words that came to me as I heard the examples on graduation day. The men take this activity seriously and demonstrated what we at Community Advocates knew: The men who participate in the class are trying hard to learn how to change their actions and/or thoughts, educate themselves about resources and return to the community with a plan to succeed.
“I tried too hard to help,” said one man. “That’s what got me in here.”
This man’s story, like many of our students, is a complicated one. A member of his community’s Lion’s Club, he had recently reconnected with his biological brother. He had a good job and owns a home. But somewhere along the way, his life as he knew it, fell apart.
According to his Community Advocates Reentry Plan, he has a home plan and a few options to try to obtain financial support in the community. He is considering college or trade school and named a few places where he might volunteer. He knows that it’s important to have people he can count on and says in his plan that he will connect with these resources. He also has a plan for idle time and a self-care plan for living in the community.
But his case has not been settled yet. He has applied to be accepted into one of the specialty courts but the process can take a few months and rejection is possible if he doesn’t meet the criteria.
Meanwhile, this man along with his classmates and many others before him, are connecting with peers who facilitate the class. They receive individual help when needed and some are learning about themselves and how to advocate for themselves, for the first time.
Trust is a big issue. And finding the resources in the community that will help each person make the changes they desire, isn’t always easy. Going back to the same life and same place where the trouble started is unfortunately, sometimes the only option.
But something that won’t change is the new knowledge the students have acquired. They have resources to seek out. And peers to support them.
“Being in class, there’s other people like me,” said one young man who also found a spiritual connection along the way. “Loving myself has increased my faith. It allows me to have patience for myself and others.”
His six words: “Faith, trust, understanding, strength and love.”
These graduates showed us they were thinking, identifying areas in their lives that need work, and are ready to make changes to enter a new life.
Community Advocates held its “Self-Advocacy Training” at Hopeworx in Norristown on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. There were 24 participants at the 3-part interactive training where students learned to use their voices by knowing their resources, honing their negotiating skills and speaking up in an assertive, respective manner. A Community Rights Handbook was reviewed. The training ended with a film created by Hopeworx/CST/Community Advocates staff titled “A Call for Change.”
Great class. Very smart students! It’s your voice. Be heard!
By: Kathie Mitchell
As I jogged around my neighborhood this morning, a subtle but familiar scent floated by. It was the scent of boxwood, a fragrant evergreen shrub that triggers pleasant memories from my childhood every time I happen to smell it.
Ironically, I had recently been trying to remember the name of this bush as I described it to our justice and recovery class at the county jail as a trigger of a positive memory. Until I passed by the yard this morning, I had not recalled the name. Suddenly as I inhaled deeply, “boxwood” promptly appeared in my mind. The recall shows just how powerful a “person, place or thing” can be. The taste of a certain food, a smell of a flower, the words of a song – they can all invoke powerful feelings and memories. What we do with those feelings is important. During the class, we talk about identifying triggers that can cause thoughts or behaviors that may get us into trouble. Sometimes, however, a trigger can result in a positive experience.
As I continued my jog listening to the early morning tweets from numerous birds and looking up at the clouds and blue sky, I made a mental note to tell the students at class tomorrow that my trigger was boxwoods. I wanted to tell them how it changed my state of my mind for much of the day. For at that instant when my olfactory senses made the connection, my mind was running through the day – what happened earlier in the morning, what will happen later, what I have to do that night. At this particular moment, I was mentally reviewing some other morning tweets about the Republicans’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the effect on Medicaid…some rather troubling thoughts.
As quickly as the fragrance hit me, it was gone. But so were the negative ruminations! I became intensely aware of everything around me. The cool spring-like air was invigorating. A gentle breeze swayed the bare branches of large trees as I gazed upward at the blue sky, puffs of clouds meandering through and above the waving limbs. The color of scarlet became cardinals; black and white bobbing specks on a bird feeder transformed into finches. I became aware of the absence of car noise and other sounds of human awakenings.
I became mindful. I slowed to a walk. I wanted to be totally in the present, purposefully inhaling and exhaling slowly and taking an inventory of my blessings in the moment. The practice of mindfulness is another approach we have introduced to our class that helps promote calmness and an ability to focus in our students. I thought about the boxwood bushes that used to grace the front lawn of my late grandmother’s home. I remembered her smiling face and the happiness she exuded every time I visited. She was a shining light in my life and a beacon of hope, safety and love.
Thanks to the scent of a boxwood, hours after my running shoes were put away, that light in my life is still shining.
By: Kathie Mitchell, Director
“Chose to live and not die.”
At the recent graduation of the 17th session of “It’s T.I.M.E.”, each student read six words they had worked on during the past week that described a goal or a statement about themselves.
It was a moving and enlightening experience and I was left again in awe and feeling inspired by the courage and thoughtfulness that was demonstrated in that room.
James (not his real name) had written the above words and during the week had gone to the jail library to have it typed. Here’s what he said:
“These are the six words that motivate me to go strong and stay strong in my recovery process. Drugs kept leading me into jail. I say this because if I don’t use drugs and stay on my medication I never come back to these places and give up my freedom. I say this because I have stayed clean for 10 years. And within those 10 years I have accomplished a lot. A lovely wife, place of business, good credit, and most of all my family. These were the best 10 years of my life. I learned how to be a husband, father, brother, uncle, nephew and most of all, a real friend. Being in this class has taught me how to live again, and take responsibilities for my actions. I learned that staying clean and taking my medication must come first. My ways and distorted thinking has kept me in the grips of a continued and progressive illness. I have learned that I don’t have to be the director of every situation. I can be a productive member of society and abide by the rules of society. I was in the fight of my life. I lost my mother in 2009 and tried to commit suicide and couldn’t even do that right. God has truly been good to me. I had a lot of guilt and remorse toward my family. All along I was really upset with myself. I just wanted to put these six words into my life, to let it be known that drugs don’t rule my life anymore and yes, I have the power to choose or let someone else dictate my life…I thank you all for giving me the tools to live again…life has been so much better.”
I love your story, James, and how you summed it up.
Six words…“Life has been so much better.”
JB – Friend, colleague, mentor, family
By: Kathie Mitchell, Director of Community Advocates
It’s hard for me to believe he’s gone. Each morning for the past two weeks, I expect to see a text message or email from him on my phone. JB was an early riser, and he liked getting to the office early in the morning before anyone else got there and it was still quiet. At the office, he had a presence. I still look up from my desk and expect to see him standing quietly and patiently in the doorway, waiting to update me on the outcome of a class, the result of some research he did, an injustice that needed to be addressed.
JB was passionate about the work he did at the county correctional facility. He told a colleague recently that this was the work he was meant to do. He loved teaching the re-entry class but always humbly reminded everyone that the class was about the students, not him. I attended the most recent graduation on May 12th where 13 men received their Certificates for completing the class. It was the 16th time we held the 14-week class which ran consecutively for the last 5 ½ years. JB was always proud of the students and took the time to know each and every one. In this last class we had introduced “Storytelling” where individuals learned a simple technique to help them focus on telling a concise, strengths-based story about themselves (or elevator speech as it’s sometimes called) to prepare for a court hearing, to talk with a probation officer, or interview for a job. At graduation, each of the men were given a few minutes to tell their story. You could feel the emotion in the room as each man bared a little of his soul, a past discretion and then a hope and sometimes a prayer, that they were going to start a new life in the community. One gentleman in particular, pointed to JB and said, “I know that if you can do it, I can, too.” Leading by example, JB shared his story over the course of the class and truly made the connections and gained the trust of so many who felt hopeless, had made mistakes, followed the wrong path, had no one to give them a hand up, or who had forgotten how to trust.
JB knew we appreciated him because we told him often since he was prone to blaming himself or being his own worst critic. He was always polite, dignified, interested, hardworking and caring. Above all, he had a great respect for people and in turn, was greatly respected by those who knew him. I am so happy that he received an award for his work from NAMI Montgomery County just a week before he died. It was an honor to be there with him and to see him recognized for the work he achieved. He was really at the top of his game.
The next day on my desk, he left me a beautiful card with a painting of an Oak Tree by Jerry Garcia on the cover. It was filled with gratitude about the support he received at Hopeworx and as he put it “allowing me to be me.” Being him was what made the job so successful. In the card, his sentiments were also filled with hope, ironically, for the future. At the end of the card he thanked me for being “such an integral part of my journey to reaching just the beginning of bigger and better things to come from the advocacy team that I’ve come to love so dearly.”
He was part of our family at Hopeworx and I sent him a thank you text that read, “It’s been a privilege working with you and the rest of the team. We are a family! With much gratitude, Namaste.”
by: Ellen Kozlowski and Jomel Silverio
On May 24th, 2016, Ellen and Jomel facilitated a Self-Advocacy Training at Creative Health in Pottstown. The turnout of those who participated was split down the middle between recovery coaches and consumers.
They were attentive and there were a few people that helped lead the training by demonstrating their understanding of the different types of thinking and problem solving methods.
We went in depth into what it is like to be assertive, aggressive, and passive. We had mock roleplays that we showed, where being aggressive and passive was ineffective.
The participants saw that when the roleplays were showing what it was like to respond with aggression, little was achieved because the person on the receiving end of aggression felt intimidated.
When the roleplay demonstrated a passive response, the person who was responding in a passive manner was taken less seriously, and their case was brushed off, no matter how important their situation may have been.
It was through these examples that the audience saw that advocating in an assertive manner was the most effective way to have positive results when working personally or for an important decision.
The evaluations showed they all received so much out of the training, and that they learned new skills like negotiation, analyzing problems, educating themselves and making an action plan, and would recommend the training to others.
By: Brianne Murphy, Director of Prison Yoga Programs
I’ve been privileged enough in my work to be able to provide yoga and mindfulness classes in many different settings: schools, summer camps, libraries, youth detention centers, prisons, recovery houses, the list goes on. I never fancied myself a studio instructor, and experiences like the one I had at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility with Community Advocates is exactly why I do the work in the manner that I do.
It is clear that Community Advocates’ “It’s T.I.M.E.” Instructor JB Brooks has set up a rapport and level of trust with his participants. Any time we go to lead a class on yoga and mindfulness we never really know what to expect. But what I have come to recognize is the truly divine timing of every brush with yoga my students and I have. JB has been leading breathing exercises and adequately prepared the men for the experiential learning that was about to take place. We were beautifully led in breath by one of the participants which perfectly set the stage for the rest of our time together.
Yoga and mindfulness is experiential and inquiry based. There is no exactly right answer that can’t be found within yourself. Like the skills and topics that JB covers throughout the session, one’s personal experience and ownership of the materials is critical. What we can feel in our own bodies is what we will remember most.
Work-shopping a topic like yoga and mindfulness with a skilled co-facilitator and engaged participants is nothing short of magic. Through real life engagement with the materials we are able to have honest conversations with the participants about the overwhelming emotions that can be present in daily life. What is always most powerful is coming to share techniques that participants are already engaging with, without knowing that they were “doing yoga”. This is a beautiful testament to the wisdom of our bodies. I left feeling so fortunate to be a part of a group who is taking the time to facilitate such powerful experiences. I am counting down the days until our next session.
*Brianne Murphy co-facilitates a new mindfulness class for students in the “It’s T.I.M.E.” re-entry class at the county jail.
The following are two letters that were read at the June 18, 2015 hearing on the proposed Montgomery County Human Services Block Grant Plan for FY 2015-16:
The Need of Mental Health Supports by Jomel Silverio
When those with lived experience and have mental illness are provided with health supports, they become assets to the community and change occurs for the better. People may have had to live with trauma, and the assistance that the community provides for people just like us, aids those afflicted with mental illness to reengage, stronger than their past.
When discussing the necessity of mental health, it is important to assess all those which encompass the umbrella of those who have mental illness.
Youth, just like adults, may have had traumatic experience growing up, and through generations of distorted thinking have turned to criminogenic behavior.
No matter where you are, mental health services are crucial in offering those with a need, a chance to recover.
Each of us, to a degree, is connected to someone, or is somebody who is a living example of how the mental health field has picked us up, taking the pressure off our shoulders, and has engaged us into fulfilling our goals, and helping others realize that there is always a way to recovery.
The need and demand for mental health devotees grows, just as a tree with limbs outstretched to reach the sun.
If the mental health field is not supported, the result is akin to a mountain of garbage in the center of our town’s Main Street where everyone drives away from briskly, or like a house which has trash inside that has never been taken out, so action must be an initiative.
Of course there are trash trucks that run through town, but the example posed represents how the mental health dilemma is similar to a town without recycling plastics, and without water purification plants, and lack of damns to help regulate for the need of the community as a whole.
This example illustrates how mental health is an obvious necessity that continues to grow as a demand, both in people with lived experience or experiencing life’s hardships, and people that can help like psychiatrists, certified peer specialists, doctors, case workers and such to name a few.
Letter to Montgomery County Commissioners by Kathie Mitchell
Dear Montgomery County Commissioners:
The Human Services Block Grant Plan for the FY 2015-16 was not published prior to the hearing so it’s very difficult to make comments or ask questions about it. Persons with lived experience, family members, agencies and advocates for mental health expect to be part of the ongoing process throughout the year to determine short and long range goals for enhancing the mental health system in Montgomery County. I hope that the input from our stakeholder group, the Montgomery County CSP Committee, as well as the Consumer Satisfaction Team was included in this plan.
Last week, advocates from Montgomery County, Philadelphia and other counties in the region, held a rally in the Capitol in Harrisburg to support the governor’s plan to restore the 10 percent cuts that were made to community mental health in 2012, to advocate for mental health parity, and to educate our legislators and our communities about the need for forensic reform.
We advocated to bring to this county and surrounding counties 10 percent more community mental health dollars and we were not alone. House Reps. Tom Murt, Gene DiGirolamo, and Margo Davidson, as well as Philadelphia Senator Vincent Hughes spoke passionately in support of the need to fund our regional systems to adequately meet the needs of people who struggle with disabilities and who want a step up not a hand out.
We will continue to advocate for the restoration of mental health funds and for an increase in revenue for the state budget. But we need to know that our county commissioners are listening, too.
Does the current plan include additional revenues for behavioral health services? How are we funding the blended services between mental health and the criminal justice system? Do the specialty courts have designated funding or does each department absorb the cost of having staff assigned to the Behavioral Health Court, the Drug Court and the Veterans Court? Once individuals leave the county jail, what human services funding is available to safely provide housing, treatment, employment and support services for them? Have we designated more funding for case management and prevention, intervention and diversion services? How are we helping individuals who sit in jail because they don’t realize their problems are related to their mental health?
Hopefully, the Human Services Block Grant Plan addresses these questions. There are a lot of competent, hardworking individuals in our human services system who do the best they can to help those in need. But without the tools to do the work, it won’t get done.
Montgomery County has done a great job in creating a person centered, recovery oriented system with the development of certified peer specialists, housing initiatives, recovery coaching, employment services and mobile crisis to name a few. We need to continue to enhance these services while taking a huge step up to tackle decriminalization of mental health. It’s one of the most challenging issues we face and one that needs to be addressed with all our community partners involved. Most of the individuals who are struggling in jail are desperately seeking help. We need to let them know we’re listening.
Advocates from southeast Pennsylvania rallied alongside legislators and other advocates from across the state at the Capitol in Harrisburg on June 10, calling for a restoration of the 10 percent cuts to community mental health that were taken away three years ago.
Led by a team of advocates from the Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA (MHASP), members of CSP and Community Advocates were armed with a three-prong message: restore mental health funding in the state budget, implement mental health parity in our state, and step up the process of reforming forensic involvement with people with mental health conditions.
Showing their support for restoring funds and the need for quality mental health services were House Representatives Tom Murt, Montgomery County, Gene DiGirolamo, Bucks County, Margo Davidson, Delaware County, and Senator Vincent Hughes from Philadelphia, as well as Sue Walther, Director of the Mental Health Association in PA (MHAPA).
On his Facebook page Rep. Murt wrote:
“I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at a rally today to draw attention to the needs of people who depend on our Department of Human Services. As we debate what to include in our budget, we must commit ourselves to reducing the waiting list for services and to giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Speaking for herself was Regional CSP Technical Assistant Penny Johnson. She spoke passionately about finding her own voice after struggling with homelessness and mental health issues, and how, with the help of community resources, she also found employment and housing. Johnson, a Certified Peer Specialist, stressed the importance of the CSP network that unites stakeholders in the mental health system to advocate together at the local, regional and state level.
Forensic Advocate and Certified Peer Specialist J.B. Brooks voiced his concerns about the struggles of individuals who have mental health and criminal justice issues. Brooks, who has lived experience in both areas, facilitates a justice and recovery re-entry class at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF) called “It’s T.I.M.E.” The class stands for Think, Identify, Make changes and Enter a new life. Individuals learn about mental health, how to navigate the criminal justice system, how to identify and change distorted thinking, and are assisted in creating a re-entry plan to use upon discharge.
After the rally, advocates met in small groups and held pre-arranged meetings with legislators and/or legislative staff. Literature was handed out as well as information about specific services and programs offered in their districts.
But the advocacy work isn’t over. Now the negotiations start between legislators, who have some budget counterproposals, and the Governor. See “Here’s what you can do to help.”
Here’s what you can do to help:
- Today – Call, visit, email and/or write your local House Representative and State Senator and tell them what you think about mental health services and if they have benefited you, a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker. Each time you contact a legislator about an issue through any of these methods, it is recorded. The more calls on an issue, the more likely it makes the legislator’s radar.
- Tell others about the state budget proposal and educate them about the need for more funding for community mental health. Be specific about which services and programs you think are worthy of attention and funding.
- Urge others to contact their legislators about mental health and human services issues.
- Call or mail a thank you to Governor Wolf for proposing in the state budget to restore the cuts to mental health made in 2012.
- Call Community Advocates at 610-270-0375 if you have any questions about advocacy or to find out the names of your legislators.
- If you have internet access, google “who is my PA legislator” to find your representative.
By: Penny Johnson, TA for the SE Regional CSP Committee
On Tuesday March 3, 2015 members of the Take 5 team, myself and other peer advocates went to the Capitol to hear newly elected Governor Tom Wolf present the budget. After hearing him speak regarding lowering property taxes and improving school budgets, we split up into groups of two and were off to see several different Senators to discuss Parity Laws as well as our concerns with the new Assisted Outpatient Treatment bill that Senator Greenleaf has proposed.
While Adam Nester from the Take Five team and I were speaking to Senator Rafferty’s assistant about how the Assisted Outpatient Treatment was not evidence based and how peer support, advocacy and community supports were not only more effective but also more cost efficient, I quickly learned how interested he was in hearing more about Forensic peer support and advocacy. He agreed with me that being released from jail without re-integration programs can be extremely stressful. I explained how Community Advocates in Montgomery County were holding re-entry classes called “It’s T.I.M.E.” at the county jail as well as doing forensic peer advocacy and he seemed intrigued and requested more information regarding these supports.
Adam, myself and two other peer advocates then went off to Senator Greenleaf’s office where we got into a slightly heated debate about assisted outpatient treatment which basically means a judge can force someone into taking medication and treatment and if they don’t, they can be sent to jail. Adam as usual held his own during the conversation and I added “Who determines when someone is in clear and present danger?” One person with usually one sided information should not have the power to determine another person’s well- being or lack thereof. It’s true, if I had a family member in crisis I would also want what’s best for them. However, I would not want that decision to be placed solely in the hands of a single individual with no mental health experience or training. We already have too many people in county jails not receiving proper mental health care, why would we even think about putting others there?