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  • Consumer’s vegetable garden offers bountiful harvest, therapeutic escape amid pandemic

    Lance 1

    Gardening can improve your physical health. It invites you to get outside, exercise, and eat healthy food.

    But can the activity also improve your mental wellbeing? For Lance V., a consumer at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc., the answer is a resounding yes.

    In May, as the nation prepared for another summer of restrictions and uncertainty, Lance turned his sights to the patch of unused land behind the Cranbury Neck group home in Middlesex County.

    A plan in mind, Lance teamed up with other group home residents and three staff members: Nursing Services Coordinator Rena Sandomir, Residential Program Manager Christy Hudnett, and Sr. Counselor Elisha Dupree. Together, they tilled the soil, planted an assortment of vegetable seeds and cornstalks, and transformed the once-empty space into a sprawling garden.

    Since then, the garden has produced tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, baby Japanese eggplants, and bell peppers. Lance and the residents of the Cranbury Neck group home have enjoyed these vegetables all summer, preparing several nutritious and tasty meals.

    “About twice a week, we gather vegetables from the garden and use them to make a nice dinner,” Lance says. “We’ve made cucumber salads, sliced tomato sandwiches, and an eggplant and squash sauté. The veggies are always delicious, and everyone really enjoys picking and preparing them.”

    The garden has also been a source of solace for Lance. Much like his mindfulness exercises, he says gardening has improved his mental wellbeing, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.  

    “I tend to the garden every morning, around 7:00 a.m., making sure the plants get enough water, weeding, and anything else that is needed,” he says. “It’s therapeutic and relaxing, and it helps distract me from current events and anything negative I may be thinking or feeling.

    “It also feels great to see the results of my work—to watch the plants grow and know that I helped care for them.”    

    Lance, who will turn 71 in November, has been a consumer at SERV since 2016 and a resident at the Cranbury Neck group home for just over two years. A former teacher, he holds a degree in history from Rutgers University.

    Lance says his experience at SERV has been “extremely positive.” He has formed a lot of great relationships with staff members who always have his “best interests in mind” and have helped him realize his "full potential."

    He has formed close bonds with many consumers, as well. “We are like a family here,” he says. “We all get along well, and I enjoy the comradery.

    “I have a great support system at SERV, and at this point in my life, I really value all of these close relationships I have formed.”

    With the end of summer in sight, Lance is already looking forward to next year. He says he plans to expand the vegetable garden, adding even more plants, which he hopes will produce another bountiful harvest.

    Once the pandemic is over, Lance would also like to volunteer at a local nursing home or for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

    “I want to give back,” he says. “Despite my problems, I do feel like, in my life, I’ve been fortunate in many ways. I have a lot of great family members and friends who care about me and have helped me. And I’d like to help others who do not have the support system that I do.”

  • Travis C. shines in new role, sets goals for the future

    Travis pic

    After moving into the Stepping Stones group home in Mercer County last October, Travis C. set two goals for himself: (1) find a full-time job and (2) achieve financial independence.

    “I had just been discharged from the hospital, and I had nothing—no license, no money, no idea of what I was going to do,” Travis says. “I was so grateful to be at SERV and for the opportunity to put my life back together. Basically, I was starting from scratch, and I knew the first step toward recovery and independence was having a job and a steady income.”

    Although finding employment during a pandemic proved difficult, Travis never gave up. He scoured the internet, submitted countless applications, and eventually landed a position as a fulfillment associate at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville.

    Most people would have felt overwhelmed starting a new position in December, right before the holidays (Amazon’s busiest time of year), but not Travis.

    Travis thrived in Amazon's fast-paced environment. He even drew the attention of the company’s management team, when his name appeared second on a list of the ten top-performing staff members at his shipping dock.

    “The rankings were based on speed and accuracy,” Travis says. “I’ve always been a hard worker. I wrestled and played sports in high school, and I even had three jobs while I was incarcerated. I worked in the laundry room, the store, and the workshop.

    “I’m glad that people have noticed me at Amazon. Seeing my name on that list was definitely a reminder of how far I’ve come and that good things will happen if I put the effort in.”  

    Today, Travis remains focused on his financial independence. He says he no longer relies on public assistance, often volunteers for extra shifts at the warehouse, and has grown his savings significantly. He has also started contributing to his work’s 401(k) plan.

    Clearly, Travis is devoted to his recovery, but he claims he would have never accomplished the goals he set for himself if he didn’t have “so many amazing people” in his corner.    

    “For me, there is nothing more important than family,” he says. “I have around thirty cousins, and they’ve all supported me at every turn...I cannot thank them enough.”

    “I’ve also had the support of a lot of great people from SERV,” he adds. “Ilana Berger is the first name that comes to mind. She has been there for me every step of the way and always has my best interests at heart. She has helped me schedule appointments, find transportation, and stay organized and informed. She even helped me identify an opportunity for housing in the future.”

    What’s next? Now that he feels financially secure and comfortable at his new job, Travis wants to further his education.  

    Prior to his incarceration, Travis attended community college in Brookdale and Bergen, where he majored in business. He also spent a summer abroad at the Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic, studying marketing, art, and architecture.

    Travis will pick up where he left off. He currently has an open application at Coastal Carolina University and plans to pursue a degree in finance.

    While Travis will likely face more obstacles on his path to recovery and independence, he says he isn’t “afraid of the challenge” and that he is willing to do “whatever it takes” to reach his full potential.

    “Nothing is ever easy, I know that,” he says. “Sure, these past few years have been a struggle, but I’ve also learned how strong I am and that I can handle whatever the world throws at me.

    “I hope my story can inspire people. Even if things aren’t going well, keep fighting and keep trying. Eventually, it will change.”