Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a four-part series about Sound Community Services, a nonprofit, New London-based organization devoted to helping people with mental health and substance use disorders heal and build lives of connection and meaning. You can read the other stories in the series here, here and here.
The health care landscape is in continual evolution. When it falters, the effects are felt across our communities; through overburdened government programs, overcrowded emergency rooms and shelters, and crime. Here in eastern Connecticut, Sound Community Services is working to ensure that the social safety net remains strong.
Their approach to care is holistic and dynamic, and encompasses therapy, medications, psychiatric treatment both at home and in outpatient settings, life skills training, employment assistance, legal and financial issues, and personal and social support.
"We are focused on growth and change in ourselves and in the community," says Laura Hurlbirt, director of Special Projects and Communication. "We believe in being purposeful in our approach, and adapting along the way. We ask our clients to ask tough questions of themselves; yet how can we ask that if we’re not doing that ourselves as a business?"
To this end, Sound has undertaken several changes since Gino DeMaio took the helm as executive director in 2015, including overhauling training and support for their client access representatives. They are the first people new clients interact with, and they set the tone for the relationships that follow. Laura says their role has been seriously undervalued in the past.
“The goal is to link clients with services before that window shuts–shuts because of a relapse, because help seems out of reach, or shuts because the moment of clarity has passed,” explains Sarah Clarke, one of the reps. “Little things, like reaching an actual person when you call, hearing a friendly and understanding voice, and knowing your privacy is protected, end up being huge for someone who has reached the end of their rope. My job is to grab that very short rope, and help pull the person out of the murky waters. … and up onto dry land: treatment,” she adds.
In this and another arenas, the agency is determined to transcend the challenges common to social services.
"We are actively working to reconcile the financial side and the human side," Laura says, a disconnect she describes as being "rampant" in the industry. "To be effective, we need people who can bridge the worlds of day-to-day business and our clinical offerings," she explains. One of those is Jen Chominski, who oversees the resource allocation part of the Accounts Payable department. Simply put, Jen helps people get the practical items they need to get back on their feet: A set of utensils. Some curtains. A frying pan. A bedframe.
"We need these things to live a somewhat normal life," she says. "To even believe we can live a somewhat normal life. By the time people get to us, they often have very little. Helping someone get their mattress off the drafty floor in winter really means a lot, in terms of quality of life."
Jen is new to social services; she enjoyed a lengthy career in the food and retail industries before coming to Sound. She liked her former job, but says that her new work is very satisfying.
"People are grateful, I hear that a lot and it's so nice! And our grant funders know that we are taking the best care of people we can, and the best care of how we spend that money."
Other staff members at Sound echo Jen’s enthusiasm. As people, they are as diverse as the services the agency offers. We recently spent a day getting to know some of them, and finding out what drives their dedication to their field.
"I am a coding nerd!"
Jen Ferrigno, the Director of Revenue, is another newcomer. She was happily chugging away in another job at a for-profit behavioral health provider when she was asked if she knew of anyone who might be interested in a newly created position at Sound. She would up recommending - herself!
"I visited the website and I said, 'I want to be at this company,'" she smiles.
A 20-year veteran of her industry, Jen oversees the client access representatives. She is primarily responsible for capturing reimbursement through third-party payers; meaning, serving as the gatekeeper between clinicians and insurers. She facilitates the communication and documentation which makes treatment possible.
"I'm a coding nerd," she laughs. "I do really enjoy training clinicians in how to code and document their work."
She is clearly in love with her new job.
"The feel, the mission, the vision, the emphasis on teamwork and the respect they have for clients and for each other - it's very transparent. It's very much their truth here. And it's very refreshing to be a part of that."
"Working here was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Sally Chittenden came to Sound Community Services by way of an externship through her studies at the Brandford Hall Career Institute, where she earned her Medical Billing and Coding certification. As a rep payee, Sally steps in when clients who are receiving benefits through Social Security are no longer capable of managing their money. Sally assumes rent, utility and medical treatment payments on their behalf, and helps people in crisis to avert homelessness.
"We keep people out of the shelters," she explains. "That level of independence is a tough thing to give up, so it's important to establish trust." As clients recover, they gradually reassume responsibility.
The stop-gap also ensures that government assistance is being used responsibly. The process undergoes periodic review and was recently audited by Social Security.
"I pretty much aced that," Sally says with a smile. She has high praise for both the Social Security program, for helping people through calamities, and Sound, for offering practical, meaningful interventions.
"This service offers transparency, safety and hope. I am so proud of this organization and everything we do."
"Overcoming obstacles IS the work"
Therapist Bryan McCloskey got to see powerful examples of community in action when he volunteered for cleanup and rebuilding efforts in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As an involved member of his church's youth group, he grew up with a foundation of belonging "that very much defined a portion of who I became," he explains.
Over time, he came to realize that growing up in stability and love is a lucky circumstance – it's not the rule.
"Lots of parents mean well but if they're working two jobs, they're just not around to provide guidance. If they're poorly educated, if they themselves have been violated, they've learned incorrectly how to adapt. They might not see the benefit in doing anything differently because no one has ever showed them."
As a LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) and NCC (National Certified Counselor), Bryan encourages these shifts in perspective. He urges clients to “rewrite their script."
Many of his clients started using substances at a young age, often in middle school. This is one of the most misunderstood things about those with use disorders, he says. That they are adults but still “young” psychologically, because their learning experiences were hijacked by negative forces. Entering treatment is a chance to grow up again.
"Our clients get blamed for so much, and we forget to blame their environment, we forget that the environment that was supposed to take care of them, failed too. Sometimes people can't work, temporarily, because overcoming these obstacles is the work."
"I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't believe people could change. Those changes keep me going," he says.
"My day can switch with one phone call."
For a man who had been in a car accident just a few hours earlier (not his fault), Rick Zettergren is the picture of calm as he describes his daily life as a case manager in the Community Support Program. The program is one of the few in the area that catches people before they slide into homelessness. Although he is a certified drug and alcohol counselor, in this role Rick is sort of like an on-call big brother. One day, he's helping a client develop a budget for rent and groceries. The next, he's helping a longtime legal resident apply for U.S. Citizenship.
"Some people start life behind the curve," he says. "There are self-esteem issues that come from not understanding how the world works."
One young client had been battling pervasive mental illness and drug addiction on his own for years. His family had stopped talking to him. He could no longer work. He had, by his account, given up on life. Today that client is an artist, peer leader and widely seen by the staff as a role model for people entering treatment.
"I didn't give up on him," Rick says. Rick beat his own drug addiction more than 15 years ago. He deeply identifies with the struggle.
"I really hate seeing people kicked when they're down. I've always hated it - even since high school. I was a jock growing up but I couldn't stand seeing anyone picked on. It always got to me."
"I love coming to work though," he smiles. "Sometimes, someone will try to say, 'You saved my life,' but they don't realize you can't work harder than you clients. 'No,' I tell them, 'You saved your own life. You did it.'"
“I'm going to do my hardest, but they have to do their best."
You can't save everyone, Adrian Jones says, but there are people who genuinely want help.
As the service coordinator for Supportive Housing, he deals with a segment of the population that is homeless or chronically homeless. His clients range in age from 33 to late 70s.
Losing a home, being out on the street, is devastating. It's the kind of event that can really ruin someone for the longterm, he explains.
"We call ourselves case managers but it's really more life coaching. Helping people maintain the motivation to get back up rather than give up."
Even hardworking, well-adjusted people can wind up needing help. One of Adrian's clients was a full-time maintenance worker and home owner until he suffered a permanent disability that left him without employment or job opportunities, just years short of retirement. Adrian helped him navigate the lengthy process of securing disability benefits.
"This job isn't for everyone. You have to love what you do, and love the success that you see."
"The variety of staff is our strength"
If you ever wonder what happens to the kids who grow up in state care, you might ask Joey Digiovanna. As the program coordinator for Young Adult Residential Programs, Joey works with clients age 18-25 who have "aged out" of Department of Children and Families services.
"When you read [their case files] about the things they've been through, honestly, some of it is hard to stomach sometimes," he says. "I think, 'where was I at that age?' It's important that we create some sort of foundation now, to teach them how to take care of themselves, and have healthy relationships."
Joey also works with clients on skill building, but emphasizes an important dimension that is sometimes overlooked: Joy. Learning how to have a real life.
"By “recovery” we mean getting free of whatever hurt you, anything that still has its hooks in you. Living differently,” he says.
To this end, Joey and the residential teams introduce their young people to new experiences.
"They really have no idea what's out there," he explains, "what it's like to go bowling, or go to the zoo, or the Big E. Life has to be more than living in an apartment and working with staff."
That's not to say the staff isn't awesome, though. "We have such great teams," he says. "We have people fresh out of college working with people who have been around for 20 years." The young workers are an asset, he adds, because often clients are sometimes more likely to identify with, and trust their peers. "The variety of staff is our strength."
"We learn to identify every success as a success."
Though Sound provides an acute level of outpatient care, its practitioners don't underestimate the effect of good coffee, comfy pillows and laughter.
Nichole Fenton (LICSW) runs a third of the support groups offered at the agency. Participants learn how to avoid high-risk behaviors like self-injury, isolation and substance use. The groups recently expanded, and now meet five mornings and three afternoons a week.
"The key is self-exploration- learning to ask 'Who am I?' 'What sets me off?' 'How do I respond?'" she says. Developing a capacity for self-awareness "reduces the incidence of intense emotional responses," she explains. Positive feedback and reinforcement from peers also help people to break the damaging cycle of negative self-talk that often accompanies mental health issues.
The groups encompass people of many different backgrounds. Some days there are lots of smiles. Some days people are doing their best to be present.
"There is so much external pressure to not go," she says. "Showing up, supporting each other even when we're hurting, making connections and having relationships. All this is part of healing. We learn to identify every success as a success."
"It could have been me."
Life is good for Amy Faenza. She recently earned her credentials as a Licensed and Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and is planning an October wedding. She loves her job as a therapist at Sound, having made the leap to social services from education several years ago. From the classroom she moved to the trenches of family intervention; teaching life strategies and coping skills to parents at risk of losing their children to state custody.
"There, I felt like I was making a difference," she recalls. "I was able to show someone that there are different ways to live, and show them that they could do it too."
But her role had its darker moments. "There were times I had to make a report that would result in the children being removed from their home. It's not a job you can do forever."
Today, Amy helps her clients keep focus on positive, incremental change.
"If you put the work in, good things will follow. We gradually strengthen the neural pathways for self-control," she explains, adding that "success in therapy doesn't look like streamers and confetti. It’s using skills, handling life. They can say, 'I have control.’”
Amy's not sure whether she chose social work, or it chose her. Her abiding sense of compassion and warmth belie a tumultuous childhood marked by divorce, the loss of the family home in a fire, and abuse. Though she was the youngest of three siblings, Amy was the one who intervened to stop the violence. It's an awakening she carries with her, without judgment for the people who entrust themselves to her care.
"I went through so much, but now I have this life I love: a healthy relationship, a home. …. I'm not 'better' than the people I see, and I know that," she says softly. "I know it could have been me."
For more information, visit soundcommunityservices.org or call 860-439-6400.