Vets in mental health programs saluted at VA hospital luncheon

Jennifer Falk, executive director  of the Union Square Partnership, talks to veterans at the event. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, talks to veterans at the event. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Union Square Partnership showed its appreciation of veterans last Thursday at the VA Hospital by bringing the former service members a boxed lunch from The Pavilion restaurant.

Local recovery coordinator John Tatarakis said that the VA worked with the Partnership for a similar event last year but that event was held on Memorial Day. The delay this year was due to renovations that were being done on the kitchen in the hospital’s clubhouse, where the event was held, and he added that this was the first time that everyone was allowed back into the space after the improvements.

The luncheon was available to veterans who have been participating in the various mental health programs available at the hospital, including the Mentorship for Addiction Problems to Enhance Engagement to Treatment (MAP-ENGAGE) program, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program, Compensated Work Therapy (CWT), Substance Abuse Recovery Program (SARP) program and others. Executive director of the Union Square Partnership Jennifer Falk thanked the veterans for their service and said that one of her goals at the Partnership is to work with groups in the community to improve the quality of life for everyone.

“Our role is to provide services that make the neighborhood better,” she said. “The work that you do here and the camaraderie from your fellow service men and women is important.”

Many of the doctors leading the programs had singled out the veterans who were requested at the luncheon, pointing to the work that they’ve done in their respective programs as the reason for the invitation.

“I want to acknowledge the fact that all of you are here,” said Dr. Christie Jackson, head of the PTSD program. “One of the core symptoms of PTSD is avoidance and avoidance of treatment. You’re doing difficult work that needs to be done and all of you here are courageous.”

Wishart Smith, one of the veterans who was at the clubhouse for the event, said that the mental health services available at the VA have been a huge help in getting him ready for full-time employment. Smith said that he’s been out of the service since 1989 but has a history of mental health issues and struggled with substance abuse. Until last July, he was homeless for the previous three and a half years and only found out about the programs available after a trip to the emergency room. He started in the SARP program last September and since then has participated in the Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program to get back to full-time employment.

“The programs enabled me to get back on my feet and taught me job skills and how to work with people,” he said. “Because of my mental health issues, I wasn’t relating to others very well but the program allowed me to work and deal with my issues, and now I’m a full-time employee.”
Smith currently works at the VA doing housekeeping within the hospital. He said that he is now in a position to get full-time employment outside the VA system, but he prefers to stay and has become a peer mentor.

“I see other veterans who used to be like me and I’m trying to help them now,” he said. “I’m showing them the steps to get their lives together.”

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