A Peer Mentor Gives Back

“My name is Jerome Jenkins. At age 19, I experienced my first mental breakdown. There was help when I needed it, and now I’m on the side of providing help to others.”

Jerome came to know CHD as a client receiving services to support his mental wellness. Today he shares his lived experience with CHD clients as an embedded Peer Mentor.

Now 31, Jerome recalled what it was like when he was first diagnosed with a mental health condition. “My mind was out of balance and I didn’t have a clue why. I was anxious, paranoid and incapable of functioning normally in the community. As a result, I was committed to a hospital. It was my first such experience and I felt captured. I felt the need to escape.”

Following treatment, Jerome was released from the hospital and prescribed medicine and counseling to help manage his mental health, but he remembers feeling stuck with life. “I was no longer the strong, creative, fun person that my family and friends knew me to be,” he said. “I had become mentally weak, physically weak. I was incapable of working at my job in a home improvement store. I would avoid the customers, hide in my car, and hide in employee bathrooms. When my employer found out, I was fired. Then for two or three years I wouldn’t leave my mother’s basement. I put limits on myself and wouldn’t do things a person my age would normally do. It was a ‘Why me?’ type situation.”

Through a referral, Jerome was introduced to CHD and Candace Pennington, Program Manager for CHD Adult Mental Health/Springfield. “It was a blessing,” said Jerome. “Candy listened to what I wanted to accomplish in my life and was supportive of my goals and dreams. I remember that she laughed at my jokes! She didn’t treat me like a mental health patient.”

“Seeing how far Jerome has come makes me feel good about what I do,” said Candace. “Jerome came back to CHD to work for us at the time when the peer model was a new idea.”

The peer model concept is simple: people with lived experience of a given condition are uniquely positioned to provide support and guidance to others experiencing that condition. Because they’ve ‘been there’ and made substantial progress, they can help others to make progress in living successfully. In his role as an embedded Peer Mentor working at CHD Bonnyview House in Springfield, Jerome uses his lived experience to help clients see a way forward in managing their mental wellness.

“I work in a CHD residential program that assists people in their individual journey by being supportive of their goals,” Jerome explained. “We talk a lot about goals. I share things I’m doing in my life that maybe the clients can take on in their lives as well. We talk about how they should handle things, like relationships. We also do bonding activities, like playing basketball and eating together, to help us build a genuine relationship with the clients.”

Jerome continues to see a therapist and he’s doing well. Soon he will complete his Associate’s degree in Business Entrepreneurship at STCC. In a field study class, he connected with a mentor in music production who has taken him under his wing. He is looking for a second mentor to help with business.

“I want to work behind the scenes in the music business,” he explained. “My goal is to build a business by using social media to make impressions on a large number of people, start an e-commerce store, and get a music studio to do sound engineering.”
What advice does Jerome offer for young adults who aren’t completely comfortable with their own mental health? “It’s important to feel comfortable getting help that you need it, so when your emotional wellness isn’t right, ask for help. You should never be embarrassed to get help. Ask CHD. There was help for me when I needed it. And now I’m on the side of providing that help to others.”

Weighted Blankets Offer Security to Kids with Trauma

by Kimberley A. Lee

VP Advancement for CHD

When I was three, I had a security blanket I called Mr. Softie. Actually, it wasn’t really a blanket all, but rather one of my father’s plain white T-shirts. I carried that Mr. Softie everywhere. Shortly after my mom died, my Softie was by my side. I am no child psychologist, but you don’t have to be one to make a connection between that traumatic event in my life and my need to carry that T-shirt with me. As a child, it gave me a sense of comfort. It calmed me. As an adult, I was often reminded by my Auntie Peggy of how I would wait next to the washing machine to make sure Mr. Softie was safe. Eventually, ripped and paper thin, Mr. Softie found his final resting place and I said my tearful good-byes.

I hadn’t thought about that “blanket” for years until just the other night when I was watching A Charlie Brown Christmas with my husband, Kevin and our girls. (They’re in high school, but it’s still our family tradition!) As I watched Linus drag around his light blue security blanket, I was reminded of my own security blanket, or T-shirt and a recent conversation I had with a colleague about how weighted blankets are helping children in CHD’s residential programs who have witnessed or experienced trauma.

For children who have been severely abused, another person’s touch may have a negative association. As a result, they can’t seek the comfort of a hug. A weighted blanket provides a calming effect that works much like a hug, at two levels: deep pressure touch and proprioceptive input.  (Proprioceptive input is the sense of where the body and its parts are in space). Deep pressure touch is tactile force on skin and muscles. Proprioceptive input includes sensations from the relative position of joints and limbs that make you aware of your body. Physical contact at these two levels sends sensory messages to the brain that release serotonin, a neurotransmitter known as “the calming chemical,” that helps a child minimize anxiety and better regulate their feelings.

“When you’re a kid and you’re upset, typically you go get a hug from someone,” according to Stephanie K. Colella, OTR/L, an Occupational Therapist for CHD Caring Together Group Homes. “But some children being cared for in CHD residential programs, as a result of their tragic personal history of physical or sexual abuse, aren’t able to do that. A weighted blanket provides that. It can bring a child back into the moment, or give that little bit of extra comfort they need to fall asleep at night.”

Colella explains that research has proven the positive effects of weighted blankets. It’s easy to see why: the more information your body receives through deep pressure touch and proprioceptive inputs, the more your body feels calm and in control. That can help your ability to regulate your feelings. “Weighted blankets aren’t reinventing the wheel,” she said. “Rather, they provide the sensory input that a child has not been afforded due to the lack of loving, proper touch from their family or caregivers.”

The sense of calm that a weighted blanket provides can be so comforting to a child who has seen or experienced trauma, and just the thought of helping these vulnerable children gives me a comforting feeling, too.

Your contribution can help a child feel tranquility in a new and comforting way.

You can make a difference


Pack Your Bag, You’re Moving

By Kimberley A. Lee

VP Office of Advancement for CHD

Imagine you’re five or nine or maybe 15 years old. You’re handed a black plastic trash bag and instructed to put the few things you own into that bag because your case worker is picking you up to move you to a different foster home.

Being told to toss what little worldly possessions you own into a trash bag. How that must make a child feel placing their things in a bag that others use to throw things away.  I can only imagine the sheer terror, the anxiety these children are feeling in not knowing where they are going or with whom they will soon live. In fact, as I am writing this my mouth is dry, my palms are sweating and I’m shaking as I consider the emotions they are experiencing at such a young age.

Foster children can have incredibly sad personal stories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, trauma, PTSD, attachment disorder. Many have no parents to go home to. Others have no desire to reunite with parents that neglected and abused them.  Some of those foster children are fortunate enough to spend time stabilizing their lives in a CHD Caring Together Residential Treatment program. Through these home-based programs in Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee, our professional direct care teams provide foster children in transition with integrated mental health, occupational therapy and nursing services. Referrals to all Caring Together Residential Treatment group homes are made through the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families or the Department of Mental Health.

Caring Together isn’t a permanent foster placement. Rather, if a foster care placement isn’t working out, a child is sent to us for stabilization and assessment. Our staff considers relationship dynamics, emotional wellness, academic and social progress in school, and more. By design, programming is short-term, but children can be with us for as short a stay as overnight or as long as several months while we work for reunification with families or identification of a more appropriate foster home.

So how does a trash bag figure in? CHD is looking for one or more local business partners to sponsor the procurement of appropriate travel bags we can give to each foster child we serve in Caring Together. Ideally we’d like to provide each child a sturdy duffel bag large enough to hold their clothes plus personal hygiene items, a small blanket and small pillow. We’d love if you’d allow employees to help us assemble the bags with these items so a child can have a complete bag on a moment’s notice.

Not long ago, a 9-year-old boy arrived at Caring Together in Springfield, dropped his plastic trash bag on the floor and announced, “I’m so happy to be home!” He’d already been to nine foster homes in his short life. He was at Caring Together once before and he loved it. When this boy is ready to move in with a new foster family, wouldn’t it be great if he could pack his belongings into his very own bag? And not the kind people use for garbage—the kind they take on a trip! If this sounds like something you or your company can get behind, please call me directly at 413-439-2252. If individual readers want to pitch in, we’d love you to send a check to CHD, Attn: Kim Lee, 332 Birnie Avenue, Springfield MA 01107.

We estimate each new bag to cost just about $25.00. It’s not a lot of money, but think of the long-term impact on a vulnerable child when the bag they’re asked to pack isn’t made for trash, but instead one that says you’re important and cared for. I hope a few folks will help out. Thank you.

Your contribution can help a child feel more comfortable and purposeful when they are making their next move. 

You can make a difference

Sometimes, Finding the Good in People Just Takes a Closer Look

By Kimberley A. Lee

VP Office of Advancement

My daughter Nolah and I were together on a recent trip to the grocery store. We picked up steak tips, and French bread, then saw a large bin with freshly picked corn on the cob. Nolah pays close attention to detail and she noticed many ears had their husks peeled down, just a little. She took a closer look and found these ears had something in common: a little bit of brown near the tip. Some shoppers looked only at the very end of those ears, decided they mustn’t be any good, and tossed them back on the pile.

I wondered why those shoppers didn’t bother to pull the husk down enough to see if the whole ear was good. And in that moment, I thought about eight young men in CHD’s Secure Residential Treatment program who just a few weeks ago, successfully graduated from a program called Your Future Starts Now that teaches professionalism, leadership and entrepreneurship. All critical skills necessary to securing and sustaining employment.

Your Future Starts Now modifies a proven 4-H leadership curriculum. Program facilitators from Student Bridges met with the participants for two hours twice a week for four weeks. Topics included interviewing skills, resume writing, networking, and personal accountability. Specific career opportunities were presented in fields such as the restaurant business and working with animals, but it goes beyond that.

If you didn’t know these young people were in a Department of Youth Services secure residential treatment facility, you wouldn’t have guessed. Their transformation has been remarkable. At their graduation event they were respectful, confident and justifiably proud of their accomplishment. Family members, program staff and members of the community came to offer support and congratulations, listen to a keynote speech about overcoming adversity, and celebrate over a shared meal.

CHD is excited to offer this program. We’re applying grant money generously provided by MassMutual and leveraging existing community resources through 4-H, UMass Extension, and the Student Bridges organization. Together, we are providing programming that is helping troubled youth get their lives on track with brighter futures.

At home, as my daughter and I shucked corn, I wondered out loud if those kids who’d just graduated had been looked at only at the surface when they were growing up. Had a responsible adult ever given them a deeper look?  Too often, we aren’t willing to think beyond our prejudices or look past things we hold true, but which aren’t based on everyone’s reality.

“Mom, everywhere you go, you’re always thinking about CHD,” Nolah said, both smiling and shaking her head at me. She’s right, and it’s important because CHD affects nearly every social challenge in our community.  CHD is supporting services, offering resources and running programs that address so many needs. It’s hard to go anywhere without being able to reference the good work of the organization and the many community partners like 4H that make that work possible.

“That sounds like a really cool program, mom” Nolah told me. “Sometimes good people just make bad choices because no one looked at them deep inside.  It’s kind of like finding a really good ear of corn. You need to take a closer look.”

You can make a difference

How Are You, Really?

How are you? Three little words asked in passing and often without much real thought. Hi, how are? How’s it going? All questions meant to elicit a response as to someone’s health and emotional well-being. Yet, for just as many times as we ask the question, are there equal number of occasions when we actually slow down long enough so that we can actively and presently listen to the response?

Once a month, or more often if life seems especially hectic, my husband and I sit with our girls in the den. TV off, phones off, IPad off and we ask “how are you?”  I call these opportunities to gauge their emotional state “mental health check-ins.”  “How’s school? What’s the latest drama? “Girls, how’s life?” The answers to our questions are typically consistent. “We’re good, mom.” “Nothing is wrong, dad.” And my favorite, “We’re all Gucci!” Yet, every once in a while both will share anxieties about a test, a concern about a friend or a situation at school, or frustration over a larger, societal issue like the presidential race. Now that alone could fill six of my columns!

Thankfully, these “mental health check ins” have helped Kevin and I to see that our girls are in a good place. We have created, we can only hope, an environment where our children feel comfortable sharing their highs, lows and in-betweens. Unfortunately, expressing how we feel emotionally, mentally isn’t something everyone feels secure with our about. Why I wonder? After all, mental illness certainly isn’t a new concept.

Attempts to treat mental illness date back as early as 5000 BCE as evidenced by the discovery of trephined skulls in regions that were home to ancient world cultures. Early man widely believed that mental illness was the result of supernatural phenomena such as spiritual or demonic possession, sorcery, the evil eye, or an angry deity and so responded with equally mystical, and often brutal, treatments. From early man to current times, there is still a very real stigma against mental illness that prevents people from seeking the professional care that can help improve their mental health. When people suffering from mental illness do not get the professional care they need, negative consequences can go far beyond malaise: damaged relationships, lost productivity at work, thoughts of injuring one’s self  or worse, suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide in the U.S. is increasing. After a period of nearly consistent decline in suicide rates in the U.S. from 1986 through 1999, suicide rates have increased almost steadily from 1999 through 2014, the last year for which data is available.  Suicide is among the ten leading causes of death in the U.S.  population overall and within each of the four age groups from 10 to 64 years of age. Suicide is also preventable with proper mental health care.

If we injure a hand or pull a hamstring or can’t shake a persistent cough, we go and see the doctor. We probably give little more thought to that process than wondering how soon we can be seen. But when we ourselves, families or friends are confronted with persistent sadness or anxiety, the decision to get help may not be as quick, easy or comfortable. Mental illness isn’t something you can just “shake off” and “sucking it up” isn’t a prescription.

Recognizing that something isn’t quite right with our emotional wellness doesn’t indicate a weakness, it indicates a strength. It says you know who you are, you realize something isn’t as it should be, and you are strong enough to ask for help. Or it says you care enough about someone to get help for them.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, it’s a great opportunity to start your own “check ins” with those you love. To ask them, sincerely, how they are doing, and not just this month, but every month. The sooner we, as a society, begin to consider mental health on an even par with physical health, the better, quite literally, we will all be.

Help is as close as a phone call: 844-CHD-HELP. We’re here, ready to listen.

Support CHD



Written by Kimberly Lee, VP of Advancement