DSP Week

  • After more than a decade of service, Tina Pond discusses her experience as a DSP at SERV

    For Tina Pond, a Residential Counselor in SERV Achievement Centers, there is nothing more inspiring than witnessing a consumer achieve a goal and reach a new level of independence.

    Tina has been a dedicated member of the SERV team for more than a decade. When we heard she recently celebrated a milestone anniversary, we reached out to learn more about her time with the organization and what has kept her so passionate about her career for so many years.

    Q: When did you begin working at SERV? What attracted you to the organization?

    A: I have been working at SERV for 10 years now. I started as a part-time team member. I was looking to earn some extra money doing something I enjoyed. The manager at the time knew me through one of her friends that I worked with at another job. She was very impressed with my longevity in the field (18 years) and my devotion to the individuals we serve. When I told her I was interested, she was happy to oblige. I moved to full-time staff not too long after that.  

    Q: What has changed in the time you’ve been at SERV? What has stayed the same?

    A: During my time at SERV, I have watched a lot of team members and residents come and go. But what has stayed the same is that the team members are extremely hard-working, caring, and have a lot of empathy for this population. They also are very supportive to each other and all of our residents. This is truly a great team of staff and residents.

    Q: What is the best part of your job?  

    A: It gives me great joy to see the individuals we serve succeed at even the smallest task—how excited they get and the smiles on their faces when they feel that sense of accomplishment. A lot of people in this world today take things for granted. This can be the simplest of things like eating, communicating with others, walking, or going to work every day.

    The majority of the population we serve would love to do all of these things independently, but they either can’t or they need assistance and/or adaptive equipment. So, of course, it is absolutely wonderful and inspiring to see them achieve a goal or reach a new level of independence.

    Q: What keeps you wanting to come to work every day?

    A: Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life. For many of the consumers, we are family, and they look to us for support and guidance. I always try to focus on a person’s ability rather than their disability. It is my duty to help them achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.  

    Q: What are some of your fondest memories?

    A: Oh, I love watching one of the consumers react and get excited over fireworks on Independence Day and all of the lights on Christmas. Once, I also had a non-verbal individual give me a hug out of the blue. The individual would normally never do something like that, and it was shocking to myself and my co-workers who witnessed it. Another time, during a trip to a pumpkin patch, a consumer had picked his pumpkin and began hugging it because he was so happy that he was there. There are so many memories I could list, but these three things stand out.

    Q: What are you looking forward to in the future?

    A: Many more years of continuing to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

  • Brownie troop donates cookies to SERV’s healthcare heroes

    Although Brownie Troop 60284 had to suspend their in-person activities and events to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they still wanted to help their community and thank the heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic.

    So, last week, the troop donated more than 60 boxes of Girl Scout cookies to the essential workers of SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. in Mercer County.

    SERV Residential Program Manager Sara Gardiner, also Girl Scout Leader of Troop 60284, led the effort, along with her eight-year-old daughter Adrianna and Co-Leaders Tracy Edwards, Blythe Aguayo, and Susu Garcia.   

    “Although SERV’s essential workers are in the healthcare community, behavioral health often gets overlooked,” said Gardiner. “As the Girl Scout Leader, I wanted to use this opportunity to thank SERV’s staff for their hard work and selfless efforts during the pandemic.

    “I also wanted to teach the girls how it’s just as important to take care of our mental health as our physical health,” she added. "I shared with them the stories of SERV’s heroes on the frontlines and helped them recognize that you don’t need to be a doctor to save lives.”

    Troop 60284 consists of 20 second graders, referred to as “Brownies,” according to Gardiner. While they function as an independent troop, they are also part of an expansive family troop of more than 100 girls of various ages.

    Troop 60284 has worked hard to stay engaged and active in Girl Scouting during the pandemic. In addition to SERV, they’ve also made donations to a number of local EMS and fire departments. In previous years, the troop has donated to the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital.

    After last week’s donation, Gardiner said she received an outpouring of gratitude from SERV employees.

    In an email to Gardiner, Kelly Rufe, the Director of SERV Centers in Mercer County, wrote, “I want to sincerely thank you and your daughter’s entire Girl Scout Troop for thinking of SERV Mercer and donating cookies to the county. Given these difficult times, it is gestures like these that truly make our days brighter.”

    The Girl Scouts’ mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. Clearly, the Brownies of Troop 60284 encompass these values, and SERV thanks them for thinking of our heroes during this uncertain time. 

  • Chalk the Walk: Spirits remain high among consumers despite COVID-19 pandemic

    Hearts, rainbows, and well-wishes decorate the sidewalks and driveways of Willingboro, New Jersey.

    Like footprints, these colorful drawings and positive messages were left behind by the children in SERV’s DCF program. As the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve ventured out into the community to participate in Chalk the Walk—a national movement focused on spreading joy, optimism, and inspiration.

    “Since we’ve all been practicing social distancing, we have to find new ways to connect with friends, family, and the community,” said Kristina Escobar, SERV’s Director of Behavior Support Services.

    “Chalk the Walk is the perfect way to bring people together during this trying time,” she said. “With each sketch or note we leave on the sidewalk, we are spreading happiness and hope, and we are reminding our neighbors that we are in this together.”

    But chalking the walk isn’t the only way the children in DCF homes are keeping their spirits up. While some prefer the outdoors, others have found solace in the kitchen, baking their favorite treats such as chocolate chip cookies and red velvet cupcakes.

    On Friday, March 27, several of them came together to throw a surprise birthday party for Program Manager Juliana Ike.

    The party was a “huge hit,” according to Ike, who said she was "overwhelmed with joy" when the children suprised her.

    "I feel very appreciated and valued working at SERV," Ike added.

    The pandemic has not distracted consumers from their personal fitness goals, either. In fact, many participate in an hour-long workout class every day, wherein they perform push-ups, sit-ups, and various bodyweight exercises. They’ve also gravitated towards playing sports and going for long walks.

    In a recent email to staff, SERV’s CEO Regina Widdows wrote, “To say I’m proud of our staff would be a tremendous understatement. While this situation continues to rapidly change, what remains the same is [their] focus on our organization’s mission and [their] desire to provide the best possible care to our consumers. Despite all the challenges [they] face in [their] personal life—and I’m sure there are many right now—[they] arrive to work each day with passion and enthusiasm. For that, I am extremely thankful.”

    Escobar echoed Widdows’ sentiment when describing the actions of staff. “Everyone has really stepped up,” she said. “The staff has been truly amazing, and they are all working non-stop to make sure the consumers are happy and to keep the chaos of the outside world at bay.”

  • Consumers from Mercer County day-trip to Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari

    SERV Foundation Grants Program funds first educational and enrichment activity for consumers

    On August 11, 55 consumers and staff from Mercer County ventured out of their group homes and apartment sites and loaded into vans for a day trip to Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari.

    The SERV Foundation Grants Program for Consumer Enrichment funded the trip, which Rapps Pharmacy is underwriting. This marks the first time the program has issued a grant to support an educational and enrichment activity for SERV consumers since its introduction in 2019.

    All program sites can apply for grants to plan and implement activities through the SERV Foundation. Activities can include sporting events, bowling trips, picnics, trips to stores or restaurants, or any initiative with a perceived benefit.

    “I cannot thank the SERV Foundation enough for providing us this grant and allowing us to take a large group of consumers to Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari,” said Kelly Rufe, Director of SERV Centers Mercer County. “It was truly an amazing trip, and all the consumers were extremely excited to get out of their residences for the day to see exotic animals…I strongly encourage others to take advantage of this wonderful program.”

    Residential Coordinator Peter Pudlo first pitched the idea to go to Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari earlier this summer, as a way to get consumers outdoors for some much-needed entertainment during the pandemic. Pudlo also helped plan the trip with other staff members.

    “It’s heartening to see so many of our team members taking the initiative to find new ways to entertain consumers and boost morale during this crisis,” Rufe said. “There’s not many activities we can do without risking exposure, and this drive-thru safari was a great idea.”

    During their self-guided journey through the safari, consumers observed and were educated about more than a thousand exotic animals from six continents. At the park, most of the animals roamed freely across 350 acres of 11 simulated natural habitats—though predators remained behind fences.

    According to consumers, some of the highlights included elephants, rhinos, tigers, and lions. The consumers also saw a baby giraffe named Sierra, who was born in June, and her mother, Muraya.  

    At the end of the day, the consumers had a picnic before heading back to Mercer County.

  • Cranford Group Home gets creative during shutdown

    How do you stay busy and ease your anxiety while confined to your home during a global pandemic?

    For the residents at SERV’s Cranford Group Home, there’s only one answer: You have to get creative.

    Since Governor Murphy issued his stay-at-home order in March, the residents at the Cranford Group Home have been flexing their creative muscles, engaging in various activities to stay busy and stimulate their minds. One of the most notable, a group coloring exercise, took place recently, on May 6.

    Staff members Amber Garcia (SRC), Karen Williams (RC), Julius Oyawusi (RC), Julia Gabriel (RC), Geraldine Obiri-ibe (RPM) led the activity, which many residents found “especially relaxing.”

    “With drastic changes in routine like those throughout this pandemic, residents tend to withdraw, but activities like this coloring group really brought everyone to the table,” said Paul Dougherty, Director of SERV Centers, Union County.

    This crisis has been unprecedented, but there’s a silver lining, according to Dougherty.

    “This pandemic has given staff and residents the opportunity to remember and carry out activities and hobbies that they had previously enjoyed, and it has given us the opportunity to share them with one another,” he said.

    Doughtery added that many residents are also establishing healthy routines. He said one resident is reading more, one has started exercising, and one has even decided to quit smoking.

    Currently, the residents and staff at Cranford Group Home are planning a spirit week, during which they will participate in a themed activity each day.

  • East Windsor Group Home celebrates consumer's birthday in quarantine

    birthday cake with sparklers

    Throwing someone a memorable birthday party is never an easy task. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and it’s almost impossible.

    However, the SERV family accomplished this feat recently, when they hosted a party for Desiree—a consumer in the East Windsor Group Home. 

    All month, Desiree had expressed concerns about her birthday, worried the pandemic would spoil her special day. So, you can imagine her surprise on Wednesday, as she wandered through a house decorated with balloons to find some of her closest friends gathered around an ice cream cake, ready to sing to her.

    “In times of crisis, we see how important it is to support our consumers and one another,” said Residential Coordinator Danielle Spinella. “Birthdays are special milestones, and even though we are on lockdown, we wanted to have a memorable celebration for Desiree.” 

    “Small moments of joy, like blowing out birthday candles in the company of close friends, are not only important, but they are also crucial to holding on to any sense of normalcy right now. After more than a month of quarantine, we are all feeling a touch on edge, and Desiree’s party certainly helped to lighten the mood at the home,” she added. 

    Spinella has worked alongside Sabrina Delgado, SERV’s Coordinator of Behavior Support Services, at the East Windsor Group Home since Governor Murphy issued his stay-at-home order in March. When asked to comment on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both commended the actions and dedication of fellow staff members Yasmeane Richardson, Shabree Young, Joseph Kayfoain, Prince Sabatto, David Karpilee, and Winston WIlliams. 

    “I can’t say enough about the SERV staff. They’ve all worked so hard to maintain a positive environment and provide the best care to consumers throughout this crisis. They truly are heroes,” Delgado said.

    From organizing video chats to planning birthday parties, the staff at East Windsor has no doubt gone above and beyond to keep consumers occupied during this pandemic. 

    Though they hope to return to some version of their normal schedule soon, the staff is prepared to face another month of quarantine and social distancing. 

  • Moving forward, making a difference: two SERV team members discuss their roles as essential care workers

    Untitled design 56

    Taniel Isaacs, a Vocational Skills Trainer, hunkered down and took hold of D.K.’s shoelaces for what seemed like the hundredth time. “First, you want to make an X,” he said, crossing one lace over the other, “and then pull tight.”

    You could hear the fatigue in Taniel’s voice. It was getting late, and he and D.K. had been at it for hours without any progress. Every time he thought he was getting through to him, something—a sound, a light, a thought—would throw off D.K.’s concentration, and they’d end up back at step one.    

    At the time, Taniel had only been with SERV for two months, so he couldn’t help but question himself and his teaching methods. What am I doing wrong? he wondered. Am I not speaking clearly?

    You see, this was just as much a learning experience for him as it was for D.K. While D.K. was learning how to tie his shoes, Taniel was learning the importance of patience and understanding when dealing with a consumer.

    But it wasn’t until the next day that Taniel realized the true impact of the time he’d spent helping D.K.

    As soon as Taniel arrived for his shift, D.K. came rushing toward him, his eyes wide with excitement. “Look—look, I did it…just like you showed me,” he said, pointing to his shoelaces, which were tied in a perfect knot.  

    And now, nearly three years later, Taniel recalls this memory with D.K. as a “career-defining” moment.

    “It was right then, as D.K. showed me his tied shoelaces, that I knew I was in the right place and that I wanted to devote myself to helping others,” he says. “This is such a rewarding career, and I cannot think of anything I’d rather be doing.

    “The feeling I get when I see that I have made a difference in someone’s life, that I have truly helped them learn a new skill or overcome a challenge—there’s nothing like it. It’s why I’m here at SERV, and it’s what keeps me motivated to do my best and keep moving forward.”

    Recently, Taniel was promoted to Program Supervisor in SERV Achievement’s PAC Day Habilitation Program. He says he’s excited about his new role and the opportunity to grow as a leader in the behavioral healthcare industry. He’s also looking forward to continuing to build strong relationships with consumers.

    The PAC Day Habilitation Program reopened at 50% capacity in May, after closing its doors in March of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Although he is excited to return to normal operations, Taniel expects that it will pose a challenge for some consumers.  

    “Some of the consumers have gotten too comfortable with being stuck at home,” he says. “They have not been able to go out and socialize in the community for over a year, and I think it may be difficult to get them back into a routine. But it’s time, and I am ready to help them as much as I can.”

    Also moving up the ranks in SERV Achievement’s PAC Program is Stephanie Vil. She was promoted from Vocational Skills Trainer to Assistant Supervisor in Mercer County.

    Stephanie joined the SERV team in March of 2019 as an overnight Residential Counselor at a Lawrenceville group home. Before that, she had served as a Residential Counselor at several organizations, gaining nearly a decade of experience in providing care. 

    For Stephanie, SERV represented two things: change and growth.

    “I felt stuck at my previous jobs. Despite many years of service as a care provider, I was never able to move up,” she says. “I knew that SERV had upward mobility and that the organization invested in its employees’ futures. So, when I saw an opportunity to join the team, I jumped on it. It was a way forward and aligned with my long-term professional goals.”

    As an Assistant Supervisor, Stephanie is eager to take on new responsibilities and have a “more involved” role in the organization.  

    “Serving others is my calling, and I’m thrilled to take this next step in my career,” she says.

    Stephanie also plans to take advantage of the opportunities available to her as a member of the SERV team. She is especially interested in the organization’s tuition reimbursement program. She says she has her sights set on a degree in psychology. 

  • NJACP honors SERV team member Michele Bradley during DSP Hero Awards

    On September 18, in honor of National DSP Recognition Week, the New Jersey Association of Community Providers (NJACP) hosted its first DSP Hero Awards event, wherein they spotlighted individuals who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in the face of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

    Among the heroes recognized was SERV team member Michele Bradley.

    Michele has been with SERV for more than a decade and has dedicated her life to our mission-driven work. She currently serves as supervisor of the SERV Achievement Centers’ day program in Mercer County.

    When nominating Michele for the NJACP DSP Hero Award, Evan Townsend, the Regional Director of SERV Achievement Centers, wrote, “Michele has gone above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has taken the lead on supervising all of the Progressive Achievement Center staff members and has been covering two group homes.

    “Because of her commitment, her strong communication skills, and her fair leadership style, Michele earns the respect of everyone with whom she works. I always know that I can count on Michele to provide the very highest level of care, which allows me to focus on managing general operational concerns and e-learning efforts for PAC.”

    Michele is one of the many SERV DSPs who have demonstrated heroic levels of selflessness and compassion during this unprecedented time.

    Throughout the week, COO Bob Bacon, Director of Behavioral Support Kristina Escobar, and Regional Director Evan Townsend sent emails to team members in SERV Achievement, paying tribute to them and thanking them for their hard work and dedication. In Thursday’s email, they wrote, “As essential workers, you’ve been working on the front-lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing compassionate care to those who need it most.

    “From organizing barbeques to hosting arts and crafts and game nights, you have gone above and beyond to maintain a positive environment for consumers during this crisis. You are the heart of our organization, and the services you provide are making a real, lasting impact on the lives of countless individuals.

    "We cannot thank you enough for your tireless work and dedication. You are invaluable to our mission and organization, and we appreciate you more than we could ever express. You are our heroes!”

  • NJPRA to recognize two SERV team members at fall conference

    New Jersey Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NJPRA) will recognize Rachel Mathis and Yulisa Aquino at the association’s 40th Fall Conference, Resilience Through Reinvention, later this month. This honor is a testament to their devotion to the consumers and SERV’s mission-driven work.  

    Rachel Mathis serves as Senior Residential Counselor at the Brookhaven group home, where she works directly with individuals with a wide range of levels of independence and varying degrees of insight into recovery. She joined the SERV Team in 2002.

    When asked why she nominated Mathis, Kelly Rufe, Director of SERV Centers of NJ—Mercer County, said, “Rachel goes above and beyond each day to build on the strengths and capabilities of the consumers. She not only supervises the staff at the group home, but she also makes it a priority that every resident feels as if she is a part of a family. Rachel has worked with these residents for years to ensure that they are well taken care of and that the home in which they reside is comfortable, warm, and inviting.” 

    Rufe also mentioned Mathis’ positive outlook and the way she communicates with consumers. “Rachel speaks with the consumers in a way that ensures them that she cares, is reliable, and can openly communicate without feeling judged. The consumers that work with Rachel on a daily basis are motivated to attain recovery goals,” she said. “She prioritizes the needs of those she works with, which is evident through her positive outlook and willingness to help everyone and willingness to learn new interventions.” 

    In addition to her duties as a Senior Residential Counselor, Mathis works with consumers to promote health and wellness. According to Rufe, she personally accompanies all residents in the group home to medical appointments, sits in with them, and debriefs them after. She also works closely with the residential nurse to communicate medication changes and educate consumers on new medications. 

    Through the COVID-19 pandemic, Mathis’ devotion to the health and safety of consumers has never wavered. Since March, she has been educating consumers on hygiene and social distancing, while maintaining a positive environment in Brookhaven. 

    “She meets with each resident on a daily basis to instill hope, make sure needs are being met, and that they can still work towards achieving goals with changes being put in place due to COVID-19,” Rufe said.  

    Like Mathis, Senior Residential Counselor Yulisa Aquino has earned praise for her compassion and selflessness in the face of the pandemic. She has also gone above and beyond the scope of her position to help maintain an upbeat environment for consumers and staff at the Harvey group home, according to Paul Dougherty, Director of SERV Centers of NJ—Union County. 

    “During the peak of pandemic, Yulisa would call different supervisors to provide them with a joke of the day to help lighten the day and boost morale,” Dougherty said. “Though Yulisa has only been with us a short time, she has gone above and beyond to complete tasks not yet assigned to her, and she has become an asset not only to the residents of Union County, but also to the staff.”

    Dougherty also recognized Aquino’s work with consumers, noting that she has helped many see past their physical ailments, showing them that they can live fulfilling and productive lives.  

    “There was one individual in particular that she helped empower to become more independent," he said. "She has helped this resident realize that he is physically capable to make it to different places in the community on his own. And now, with staff’s encouragement, he does go out on his own and shows more confidence in himself.”   

  • 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.