Success Stories

Resident’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 resident 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 resident 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 residents, 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.”

SERV resident graduates from Rutgers University

Tangela A., a 49-year-old resident at SERV Centers in Middlesex, understands the importance of setting goals for herself. On her path to recovery, she has learned to plan for the future and how, through hard work and perseverance, she could accomplish her dreams. 

One of those dreams became a reality recently when she achieved her lifelong goal of graduating from a four-year university. She is the 18th SERV Foundation Scholarship recipient to graduate from a college or university since the program was established in 2004.

Tangela earned a degree in social work and finished her senior year at Rutgers University with an impressive 3.6 GPA. Due to the pandemic, the university held a virtual commencement ceremony. The event took place on May 31 and included words from the university’s president, Robert Barchi, and NBC News anchor Lester Holt. Commencement ceremonies are always memorable affairs, but this was especially impactful for Tangela, who had been working towards a degree while also navigating several challenges in her personal life for nearly a decade.

“It was a great and empowering feeling,” she said, noting that going back to school and completing her degree have significantly helped with her recovery.

News of Tangela’s achievement was met with great enthusiasm among the SERV family. In an email, Andre Caldini, the President of the SERV Foundation, wrote, “I know how hard she worked over the years to earn her degree. The SERV Foundation Board was thrilled to learn that she had earned her bachelor’s degree. This is truly a great accomplishment, and I am very proud of all that she has done."

CEO Regina Widdows echoed Caldini’s sentiments, adding, “This amazing achievement is a testament to Tangela’s hard work and perseverance. She should be seen as a role model to other residents, and I hope to see many follow in her footsteps.” 

Tangela first applied for a SERV Foundation Scholarship in the spring of 2011, after she enrolled at Middlesex Community College (MCC). Since then, she has been awarded tuition assistance a total of 23 times.

In 2016, after completing her associate degree in psychology from MCC, she was accepted to Rutgers University. There, she would pursue a degree in social work.

Why social work? Tangela chose the major because she “felt inspired” by the people who have helped her. “I had an extremely challenging journey to get to where I am today,” she said. “Many of the people who helped me through all the various phases of my recovery were social workers...They have given me so much support.

“I have firsthand experience in how mental health issues can envelop your life and can distort your reality,” she added, “and I want to put those years that I suffered and struggled to good use.

"Ultimately, I want to help others the same way many social workers have helped me.”

Tangela encountered several obstacles throughout her long and often arduous journey in higher education. In particular, she recalls having issues with concentration and anxiety that affected her ability to read, write, and take exams.

Nevertheless, Tangela refused to give up on the goal she set for herself, and when the challenge became too much to bear alone, she asked for help. She sought accommodations from the campus testing center and disability office, and eventually, the school granted her permission to record lectures and take tests without a time limit. She also found a strong support system at SERV.

“There is no way I could have completed my studies without all the help and encouragement I received from SERV,” she said. “SERV staff helped me study. I really struggled with math, but the Residential Program Manager at Plainsboro tutored me. The staff members also helped me with my Spanish, pharmacology, and other subjects that I had a hard time learning…Whenever I ran into an obstacle that I thought was a barrier for me in getting my degree, they happily removed it.

“I believe the SERV staff and SERV Foundation should have their names on my degree because I would not have been able to do it without everyone’s help.”

Since earning her bachelor’s degree, Tangela has wasted no time setting new goals for herself. Her sights are now set on a master’s degree in social work. If all goes as planned, she said, she will graduate within two years.

Family Care Provider opens her home to recovering women

Pearl Hadley, center, a family care provider with SERV Centers of New Jersey-Hudson County, is flanked by two of the three SERV consumers who live in her home in Jersey City – Elsie, left, and Rosa.

“Eighteen years have come and gone since mama passed away …But, now I’m with Ms. Hadley. What a wonderful lady – no more rags, (I have) nice suits, dresses and pants. I get to travel and have cookouts and go to church with her. She cooks, I clean, but get compensated for it. No more depression or laziness.”

— Excerpt from “The Hadley Residence,” a composition from “Reflections” by Elsie W., a consumer with SERV Centers Hudson County

In her tidy home on a one-way street in Jersey City, Pearl Hadley provides the kind of nurturing home that makes it simple to see why one of the three SERV consumers for whom Miss Hadley cares summons up a motherly image of her in her “Reflections” booklet about recovery.

Miss Hadley, as she is called by the women who live in her home, is a family care provider in SERV Centers-Hudson County’s Therapeutic Foster Care program, a role she feels blessed to have found since she retired from her job as an assistant treasurer in a bank in Jersey City. As a family care provider for SERV, Miss Hadley is required to not only provide training, personal guidance, food and shelter to the women in her care, but also comfort, warmth and acceptance.

Read more: Family Care Provider opens her home to recovering women

Former chauffer is back in the driver’s seat

Bernard J

As an executive chauffer for many years, Bernard J. traveled many roads.

However, for this 59-year-old man who battled Paranoid Schizophrenia, it was the road to recovery that perhaps was the most difficult to navigate.

The “friendly” voices in Bernard’s head would give him directions to destinations in northern New Jersey and New York where his employer needed to go, and at times he’d have to whisper to them, “I have this. I know where I’m going.”

Another trio of voices would tell him to “play it again” when he performed solo jazz standards on his saxophone at a restaurant in Newark, and then compliment him on his performance. During his 20-minute breaks, he would sit in his car and chat with them.

Read more: Former chauffer is back in the driver’s seat

When Harry met SERV

Harry, a consumer with SERV Centers Passaic County for 20 years, sits in the back yard of his apartment building on a recent day in autumn.

Ask Harry T., a sports enthusiast and an avid Mets fan, if he is following the 2009 World Series games on television during this first week in November, and he answers, “Nah, I don’t like the Yankees.”

But, if there is a Giants or Jets football game, a Nets or Knicks basketball game, or a Devils or Rangers hockey game any time on television, Harry is usually parked in front of his television set in his two-bedroom apartment operated by SERV Centers Passaic County.

Harry, 44, has been a consumer with SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. for 20 years. During this time, he has advanced through nearly every level of residential services and programs SERV Centers of New Jersey has to offer for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness.

Read more: When Harry met SERV

SERV consumers flourish at Bloom House

Jen, left, and Sue are consumers of Bloom House, a 150-year-old farmhouse in Middlesex County that is home to five SERV women recovering from severe and persistent mental illness. This high-independence program is the first of its kind for SERV Centers of New Jersey.

For 150 years, the large country kitchen of this farmhouse in Middlesex County has been an inviting place for several generations of the Bloom family to welcome guests as they enter through the rear door.

The warmth of this room is no different today, as three of Bloom House’s five residents greet a visitor on a recent autumn morning. Jen, Sue and Tresea graciously offer their guest a cup of coffee and sit down at the long table where they have enjoyed many conversations during the last two years.

These women and two others, Marion and Linda, are residents of Bloom House, a two-year old permanent supportive housing program operated by SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. This high-independence program for individuals recovering from severe and persistent mental illness is the first of its kind for SERV Centers of New Jersey.

Read more: SERV consumers flourish at Bloom House

SERV consumer’s artwork displayed at museum for people with disabilities

Christian displays his crayon-and-pencil drawing, “My Neighborhood,” which was selected for an exhibit at the Arts Unbound museum in Orange for artists with disabilities. His artwork is a depiction of the SERV Achievement group home where he lives in East Windsor.

Christian R. views his neighborhood as one with colorful houses surrounded by neatly trimmed green lawns nourished by bright sun rays.

Therefore, when the 18-year-old consumer with SERV Achievement Centers was asked by his teacher at The Academy Learning Center in Monroe Township to draw “My Neighborhood,” that is how Christian accurately depicted the SERV group home where he lives in East Windsor, N.J.

Rachel Stern, the teacher at the school for students with autism or autistic-like behavior, saw something special in Christian’s crayon-and-pencil artwork and submitted it to the Arts Unbound museum in Orange, where it was selected to be on exhibit for a month in March.

Read more: SERV consumer’s artwork displayed at museum for people with disabilities

Consumer invents life-saving helmet

Ronald Pitak sits in a room he painted at SERV Centers Passaic County where he is a consumer and a part-time maintenance worker. He also is the inventor of The Pitak helmet for firefighters, miners and rescue workers.

He can cite the countless jobs, positions and hobbies he says he has experienced in his 61 years: an Army paratrooper in Vietnam, a softball and baseball umpire, a scuba diver, a lifeguard, a horticulturist, a hunter.

And now, because of the few years he spent as a firefighter in West Paterson, Ronald Pitak can add one more to his “Jack-of-all-trades” list – inventor.

Ronald, a consumer with SERV Centers Passaic County, is the brains behind The Pitak, a helmet designed for firefighters or miners that has a visor and a molded holder with a replaceable filter that covers the mouth and nose for added protection from smoke and particulate inhalation while on the job.

Read more: Consumer invents life-saving helmet

SERV consumer has shear talent for barbering

Wayne L., a consumer with SERV for two years, is attending barber school, while also giving haircuts to fellow consumers at Serenity House and the Leonard building.

A shave and a haircut costs much more than the two bits (25 cents) required in the old days, but Wayne L. offers a relatively better bargain in 2009.

A resident at SERV’s transitional Serenity House in Mercer County for men recovering from mental illness and substance abuse, Wayne is honing his barbering skills on fellow consumers at the group home for a mere $5, while also working toward his license.

Before Wayne started classes at the Tri-State Barber School in Philadelphia more than a year ago, he exhibited a natural talent for cutting hair. With encouragement and support from his primary counselor Edward Mitchell and Residential Program Manager Milena Margolin, Wayne, age 44, enrolled in the school and has earned high grades since. “I aced my last written test,” says Wayne, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Read more: SERV consumer has shear talent for barbering

consumer becomes first part-time employee with SERV’s maintenance department

Greg stands outside a group home in Middlesex County, where he is working on painting the dining room. He is the first SERV consumer to be hired as a permanent part-time employee with SERV’s maintenance department.

Dressed in his navy blue Yankees hooded sweatshirt and jeans, Greg H. is not too concerned about getting drops of pink ceiling paint on them.

In fact, he remains free of any splatters as he dips the long-handled roller into the pink paint and applies it to the ceiling of the dining room at SERV’s group home in Middlesex County. He explains that while the paint looks pink in the bucket while wet, it will turn white as it dries on the ceiling. This makes it easier to see if you’ve missed any spots.

Painting is just one of his many jobs as a part-time maintenance worker for SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. Greg, the 37-year-old who once was good enough to play baseball with the minors, today is happy to have permanent part-time employment doing the same work he did as a resident maintenance helper” for 18 months with SERV.

Read more: consumer becomes first part-time employee with SERV’s maintenance department

Supporting mom and baby is a first for SERV

Helena hugs her daughter MaryAnna during the baby’ christening in early March.

“Good morning, SERV Behavioral Health System. This is Helena. May I help you?”

The cheery greeting comes through loud and clear over the phone as Helena P. readies to direct the incoming call to the Progressive Achievement Center in Ewing, N.J.

As SERV Achievement Center’s part-time receptionist for the Progressive Achievement Center (PAC), Helena, 26, keeps post and greets visitors at the nonprofit organization that has employed her since last December for two 5-hour days a week.  

Her familiarity with the Center is apparent as she moves from various offices to the PAC Thrift Store and back to her front-office desk. Indeed, the Center is her second home not only because she has been an employee for the past few months, but also because she has been a SERV consumer since June 2007.

Read more: Supporting mom and baby is a first for SERV

Recovery is sheer poetry

Shanna-Rae shares her poetry at a SERV Recovery NJ Conference.

Shanna-Rae M. loves to write poetry.

“Give me a subject and five minutes and I could come up with one,” says Shanna-Rae, 47, a consumer with SERV Centers Passaic County.   In fact, her thoughts flow like a river current when she is writing about SERV and recovery or penning a tribute to SERV-Passaic Director Kim DeRosa “to make her feel special.”

There is hope and encouragement

In every word you speak

You have become

A champion for the weak

Shanna-Rae, who has had over 30 hospitalizations since 1977 before coming to SERV in February 2006 through Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, is recovering from bipolar disorder and addiction and has borderline personality disorder. She also engaged in self-injurious behavior (cutting), saying it made her “feel alive” and relieved emotional pain.

Read more: Recovery is sheer poetry

Tim ‘reframes’ his life with SERV

“I gave myself a chance when I came to SERV, because I was out of options.”

That leap of faith is how Timothy M., a consumer with SERV Centers Hudson County, describes his journey from the despair of mental illness, addiction and homelessness to his current state of psychiatric stability, imminent independent apartment living in SERV’s Supportive Housing Program, and nearing the completion of his master’s degree in English literature.

“I went from chaos to stability,” Tim says of his life after joining SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc.’s SERV Centers Hudson County, based in Clifton, in 2004. “Prior to SERV, I was living on the fringe of society, desperate, fearful, a total wreck as a person,” says Tim, an articulate, soft-spoken man of 42 who has bipolar disorder with depressive symptoms.

Read more: Tim ‘reframes’ his life with SERV

SERV consumer nurtures his mind, body and spirit

Chuck E. of Union County

Chuck E. of Union County (NJ) is modest when speaking of his phenomenal success toward wellness and recovery from bipolar disorder.

“Yes, I have had successes,” the 25-year-old says, but adds that he will not feel truly accomplished until he is living on his own, has a job and is a contributing member of society.

Chuck already is well on his way toward those goals due to his steadfast determination, the support of SERV Behavioral Health System, and SERV’s staff members who have worked with him during the last four years.

Read more: SERV consumer nurtures his mind, body and spirit