An Empathetic and Determined Leader

Tayna Howard, program manager for CHD’s Lotus Home in Hartford, recalled her recent team meeting’s icebreaker question to encourage participation from everyone in the group. “I asked the staff, ‘Why do you do this work and what is most rewarding for you?’ The common theme was, ‘I do this work because I love helping people.’”

Indeed, Howard credits Lotus Home’s success to the dedication of her employees and “an incredible leadership team” at CHD’s Adult Mental Health-Connecticut. “We have an amazing staff who are committed to the people we serve,” said Howard. “Anybody who does this kind of work doesn’t do it for the money. No one here is going to get rich doing this. We do it because we care.”

Lotus Home provides long-term housing and services for up to five women who have severe mental illness. Its residents live with major psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and such schizoaffective disorders as bipolar and depressive disorders.

According to Howard, it is CHD Adult Mental Health-Connecticut’s philosophy that every individual served has the right and ability to make positive changes in their lives when given the proper supports, and when given an environment that is both least restrictive and one that promotes growth and individuality. Lotus Home staff provide residents with intensive education and assistance in all areas of daily living, such as social interaction, community integration, financial management, and the use of leisure time. A look at the monthly Lotus calendar reveals a variety of activities, such as personal shopping outings at the Buckland Hills and West Farms Malls, lunches at Elizabeth Park in Hartford and at Wickham Park in Manchester, brunch at IHOP, Zumba at Toivo (a center for holistic healing), a trip to Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, and a Memorial Day celebration with residents and staff from the Sequoia House, a CHD intensive residential rehabilitation home in Hartford. They are provided with transportation in a CHD van.

Lotus Home residents meet with their psychiatrists and clinicians regularly through the Capital Region Mental Health Center, and visiting nurses come to Lotus in the morning and afternoon to administer medications.

Howard said CHD trainings have been invaluable for Lotus Home staff in improving the lives of the individuals they serve—especially trainings for Motivational Interviewing, a client-centered, evidence-based approach designed to help people find the motivation to make a positive behavior change. She said the technique involves asking open-ended questions and listening with empathy. “From asking open-ended questions, we get more information,” he said. “As opposed to asking them, ‘Did you have a good day today?’, we say, ‘Tell me about your day today.’ It prompts a real conversation.”

In Motivational Interviewing, Howard said that it’s important to validate the emotional distress associated with an individual’s behavioral health challenges. “Motivational Interviewing is very helpful in interventions with our residents,” she said. “You listen, and you validate that the person is hearing voices in her head, for example. Validation is everything.” The goal is to avoid hospitalizations and calls to the Capital Region Mental Health Center’s psychiatric mobile crisis team—and Lotus Home has been highly successful in that regard.

Howard began at CHD eight years ago, and has worked with several AMH-Connecticut programs: the Community Transitional Living Program, the Residential Support Program, and the Odyssey House, an intensive rehabilitation home for young adults. She became program manager at the Lotus Home last October.

“Under Tayna’s leadership, we have noticed significant declines in hospitalizations and crises,” said Amy Woods-Sawyers, director of operations for CHD’s AMH-Connecticut. Some of the Lotus residents are under conservatorship, in which a person manages an individual’s financial and personal affairs, but sometimes a conservatorship doesn’t necessarily work out in the conservatee’s best interest, and those cases Howard goes to bat for her Lotus ladies. “Tayna’s commitment to changing conservatorship for clients whose needs weren’t being met is highly commendable,” said Woods-Sawyers. “Her compassion and willingness to fight for their rights is something that can never be measured with a price tag. They are lucky to have her in their corner. She is an amazing advocate for staff and the people we serve.”

(L-R) Lotus Home Direct Care Staff member Donlejon King, Melody, Program Manager Tayna Howard, Olga, Direct Care Staff member Mirella Chavez, Marta, Direct Care Staff member Dwight Minott, and Kim.

Howard, who earned her master’s degree in Social Work from Springfield College, is a former certified nursing assistant (CNA), and was the therapeutic recreation director at Trinity Hill Care Center senior living community in Hartford, and then the service director for the Chrysalis Center, a multiservice organization in Meriden, CT. In 2005, she won the Maria Miller Stewart Award, an honor presented by the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund for Connecticut women who are role models in their efforts to advance the cause of equality and who have a demonstrated history of commitment to issues affecting women and their families. She is known for putting on lively events—she planned walkathons and Black History Month celebrations for Trinity Hill, and at Chrysalis she implemented the first annual Reentry and Employment Resource fair for the agency’s ex-offender program—so it’s no surprise that she organized this year’s Juneteenth celebration at CHD’s Hartford administrative offices at Avery Heights.

Indeed, Howard is a dynamo who has endless energy who rallies her staff with enthusiasm, and treats the individuals we serve as she would family—with empathy and genuine care, and this allows them to be more comfortable and open with her, because they feel self-worth. Howard pointed to a mural of the lotus flower on the dining room wall painted by direct care staff member Annalise Caraballo. In nature, the lotus flower grows in dark, murky waters, rising out of adverse conditions that would limit the success of most plants. Howard believes the Lotus Home is aptly named because it symbolizes the human ability to endure hardship.

Woods-Sawyers credits Howard with bringing “hope and optimism into the lives of the Lotus residents. They feel understood and supported because of her efforts. She has done an incredible job at ensuring that they are happier than they ever have been.”

Howard, however, is quick to deflect this praise and redirect it back toward Woods-Sawyers (“She supports us 150 percent”), as well as the Lotus Home staff. “The people who we serve trust and believe in our staff,” she said. “They are my foundation.”