Employee Awards and Accolades

Stairways holds inaugural employee picnic

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Employee Waldameer Picnic

About 1,000 employees and their family members from Stairways Behavioral Health and Beacon Light Behavioral Health Systems attended the inaugural employee picnic at Waldameer Park and Water World under sunny skies Saturday, Aug. 1.

Staff from each affiliate agency had the opportunity to bond and build camaraderie with each other while enjoying an Erie summertime landmark.

Employees had the opportunity to socialize and dine at the food pavilion as well as enjoy the park’s attractions and entertainment offerings.

Stairways Building Rededicated to McCarthy in Tribute

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Call it the house that Bill built.

Stairways Behavioral Health added a familiar name to the façade of the agency’s administrative building when it re-dedicated the headquarters, 2185 W. 8th St., as the William F. McCarthy Center during a tribute ceremony May 29.

Before a crowd of about 100 staff members, government officials, community leaders as well as family and friends of McCarthy, well-wishers commemorated the career of the former president and CEO with tribute remarks and the unveiling of a new building sign bearing McCarthy’s name.

The honor did not come without gratefulness and humility from McCarthy, who thanked his colleagues and family.

“When I look at this (building), I look at it with tremendous gratitude but I also look at this with a sense of history that this building will not always be used in the same way,” McCarthy said. “It’s not about the letters, the choice of the font or the metals. It’s all about the intent of people to say at least for today, 'we recognize that you have helped us along the way' and so for that, I accept this.”

McCarthy served as president and CEO from 1998 until his retirement in December. In all, his career at Stairways spanned 42 years.

In addition to the building’s rededication, McCarthy was recognized for his service to the community and advocacy with citations of achievement from the City of Erie, Erie County and the State of Pennsylvania.

In presenting the citation from Erie County, County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper acknowledged McCarthy’s service for countless individuals.

“I think this is a wonderful tribute to a person who has given to our county in so many ways,” Dahlkemper said. “Thank you for being an advocate for all those you serve in Stairways and throughout the county.”

Dr. Kristine Nelson, president, Stairways board of directors, emceed the event, which featured several speakers.

Dr. Meghan McCarthy, Stairways physician and Bill McCarthy’s daughter, spoke on behalf of the McCarthy family along with her nephew William F. McCarthy V.

“You have demonstrated by your undying investment in people, in families and in relationships what matters most in this field,” she said.

McCarthy’s personal touch and sense of friendship was also the theme of former co-worker Gary Boetger’s speech. Stairways Vice President of Clinical Services Jill Corey delivered the remarks on behalf of Boetger, who was unable to attend.

“I read somewhere that you can always tell that two people are best friends because they are having more fun than it makes sense for them to be having,” Boetger wrote. “That is certainly true of Bill and me.”

Under McCarthy’s leadership, Stairways expanded and adapted into the 21st century in the same vision of the organization’s founders, said Mike Gage, McCarthy’s longtime friend and son of Stairways co-founder Rachel Zacks Gage.

“The fact that someone who knew my mother would not only come to work at Stairways but lead it into the future amazes me,” Gage said. “I’m sure that my mother would be as proud of what he has done as I am. They truly shared a vision.”

In his address, former president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Association of Rehabilitation Facilities Gene Bianco noted that McCarthy “showed not just a great mind but a great heart.”

For more photos of the event, click here.

Kim Stucke reflects on 40 years at Stairways

Thursday, May 28, 2015

One of Kim Stucke’s fondest memories of working at Stairways Behavioral Health occurred just a few months into her job as a live-in residential aid.

While working at apartments located at East 38th and Briggs Avenue, Kim walked into a surprise when she entered her bathroom one morning in late November. Sitting in the bathtub was a 30-some-odd-pound turkey floating in a shallow pool of water.

Unbeknownst to Kim, the thawing bird in the bathtub was waiting for her to fashion it into Thanksgiving dinner for 40-some residents.

“I had never cooked Thanksgiving dinner or anything that big before, so I called my mom, dad and sister and asked them what to do,” said Kim, who was just 21 at the time. “We put together a nice dinner and I remember people were so grateful because they didn’t have any family to spend it with.”

The experience was prophetic in a way for Kim, as Stairways would become like a family for her for the next 40 years.

Since 1974, Kim has held a number of roles in the clinical and administrative sides of Stairways, serving as a caseworker, Director of Community Living Services before becoming Director of Special Projects and transitioning into Chief Development Officer, the post which she currently holds. Kim has also been instrumental in her work with Fairweather Lodge as well as securing grants and serving as a legislative liaison.

All the while, she hasn’t forgotten the response she received after she prepared Thanksgiving dinner all those years ago.

And her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either, as she won Stairways’ Distinguished Service Award in 2004. She has also completed Leadership Erie, has received several proclamations for her work and was the Women’s Roundtable Woman of the Year award recipient in 2009.

What is it about Stairways that you have worked here for 40 years?

Since I started out working at Stairways as a live in residential worker, I always have had a big heart for our clients. I am acutely aware of what their needs are and how difficult managing a mental illness can be on a daily basis. Sitting around their kitchen tables, clients’ shared with me their hopes and dreams. I have tried to carry this sentiment forward in the work that I have done during my career here. Professionally, Stairways offered me opportunities to move my career from direct service to clinical management to executive management.  The diversity of job opportunities that Stairways afforded me is what kept my career relevant and viable.

What have you learned about people during your time here?

From my point of view, Stairways has great clients, exceptional staff, dedicated board members and generous community supporters.  We all share a common bond that being the journey of life, along with its victories and its challenges. Some of us have greater or less degrees of victories or challenges along the way but all of us need support along our journey.  

How has the landscape of the mental health field changed since you began?

The landscape of mental health has changed dramatically in terms of funding, system values and clinical practice. Way back the county wassolely responsible with the focus on bringing people out of the state hospital to their home communities. Then there was a shift to partnerships between state and county with a focus on rehabilitation. The current environment is one of managed behavioral health care funded by county, state and federal resources.  Comprehensive continuums of treatment and rehabilitation services are focused on recovery.

What lessons did you learn as you began your career that has stuck with you?

All people want the same basic things in life; a home, friends, meaningful involvement through employment, volunteer work or participation in agroups, clubs or churches. In addition people strive for good health and financial security. I learned that people need success to build their self-esteem in order to take the next step in their journey. People want to be valued for who they are not their illness.

What of your experience on the clinical side has since helped you in your administrative roles?

Knowing how difficult life can be on a daily basis for many of our clients is front and center to me. It provided me the patience and endurance tonavigate changes in the mental health system. This understanding was a primary motivator for me when it came to tackling barriers often presented by government officials, bureaucratic programs/ regulations and narrow minded thinking. It was critically important to make resources available for our clients in order for them to have a better life. I wanted to assure that their voices would be heard which resulted in my strong advocacy work.

What would you still like to accomplish at Stairways?

I would like to ensure that Fairweather Lodge, Opportunities Unlimited and the Bloom Collaborative become high quality programs that are financially sustainable. In addition to the many other important Stairways programs, these non- traditional programs have great value in terms of improving the overall quality of life for our clients.

Above: Kim (left) with former Chief Administrative Officer

Mary Ellen Dahlkemper after Kim won the

2009 Woman of the Year Award     

Employee Spotlight: Sara Harris

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Sara Harris began working at what was then Center City Arts in June 2013, she was the first person to assume the newly created position of Creative Wellness Coordinator.

As the effervescent figure that greets visitors entering BLOOM Collaborative, it’s a wonder the job wasn’t created solely for her.

Along with BLOOM director Lee Steadman, Sara oversees the day-to-day operation of BLOOM, a program dedicated to fostering holistic health and well-being through art, nutrition, gardening, yoga and meditation.

For each guest entering the campus on East 26th and Holland streets, Sara's as quick to offer a smile as she is a cup of coffee.

A self-described jack-of-all-trades, Sara has her hand in a number of things at any one time, from teaching yoga to maintaining class schedules to making sure each new guest is met with warmth and hospitality. In addition to playing host, Sara constantly has her finger on the pulse of BLOOM, ensuring things run smoothly for the hundreds of individuals visiting the campus each day.

Although she does not consider herself a typical artist, Sara’s laid-back personality helps stimulate the creative atmosphere that is synonymous with BLOOM.

Q: For many people who visit BLOOM, you’re the smiling face that greets them. What is it about this job that suits your personality?

A: I don’t think of myself as someone who is going out of my way to be the smiling face you see. I look at it more just as me being myself and I think that’s why people relate to me so well, because I’m just being my normal friendly self and people seem to really respond to that.

I do enjoy seeing the impact that my interactions have with people, especially people that have been coming in over a period of time and you can see when they come in the door how, visually, the space impacts them and the feeling of the environment. But then when that’s paired with not only me but other friendly and positive personalities in this building and within BLOOM itself, it’s easy to see the differences it makes in somebody’s day. You find that people are pretty verbal about sharing that. Because usually when somebody first comes in here, it’s the hardest part to have the confidence, but when they do, they’re met with a friendly face and a beautiful space, they say ‘why did I wait so long?’

Q: What is a typical day?

A: Every day is different. We might have the same things on the schedule but you never can tell what’s going to happen depending on how the folks that are coming in the door—how they feel, what they want to talk to you about. Some days everyone wants to talk about what they’ve been doing and by the end of the day it feels like you’ve accomplished nothing on your list, but really it’s not about what’s on that list. Really, it’s you took five minutes to talk to somebody and it could’ve been the highlight of their day.

I’m just being friendly and nice to people and I think for a lot of people that come here, they don’t have that interaction on a regular basis and that’s what this place is all about: giving people an opportunity to be in a friendly and open place and be not only with their peers but the people who work here.

Q: Since you started working here in June 2013 at then-Center City Arts, what are the biggest differences you have seen?

A: When I started, the schedule was a lot smaller and there was a lot fewer people, like on a typical open studio day there were maybe 25 people, now we’re at 50-plus. So it was really easy to see how just having somebody to interact and answer questions really helped propel this program to be even busier. I mean, it’s more than doubled in my first year and a half

Attendance and offerings have grown and we have a great group of teachers and I think folks just recognize the need to add new art programs and diversify it by adding yoga and adding different experiences. Like introducing folks into new experiences that they wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to participate in and just simple things like the idea of fruit, gratitude, positive, having a beautiful space to be around.

I think in having a friendly face, being warm and letting me people know they are welcome can, I think that kind of had a big effect on putting people at ease and helping them have fun, so if they feel welcome, why wouldn't they come back?

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: I like that every day is different. I don’t like being stuck in a space or not moving around. I like being able to come to a beautiful space, I’m able to move around, things are different every day, that you know that you’re positively impacting the world and community around me. I think I’m very lucky to be able to work in this space and with the people, whether it’s staff or clients.

And I like that I can ride my scooter here in the summer (laughs).

Q: When people ask you what’s done at BLOOM, what do you tell them?

A: My standard answer is that we’re a creative wellness campus, so we offer opportunities to Stairways clients as well as the community at large to get involved with art and yoga to help make their day a little better.

Something that people always then say to me is ‘I’m not an artist—I can’t draw.’ That’s what they immediately think of—‘I draw stick figures’. And I tell them, ‘Hey art isn’t just what you do on a canvas. You can do art in all other areas of your life, whether it be how you dress or how you like to cook, there’s art in everyday living.’ For me that’s what I really like about this job is letting people know, ‘Hey, you really are an artist whether you realize it or not.' There’s something artistic and creative in everybody.

(Photos by Mark Fainstein)

The Next Step

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

After nearly a month of leading Stairways Behavioral Health, Valerie Vicari finds herself in a state of ease and comfort.

The acclimation process having been expedited due to her familiarity and working experience with Stairways, Vicari has hit the ground running since assuming her position as executive director.

"It just feels right," she says enthusiastically.

As director, Vicari will oversee the operation of Stairways' clinical programs as well as work with the President/CEO of Beacon Light Behavioral Health, Stairways' recent affiliate, and Stairways' Board of Directors to ensure the continued implementation of the organization's vision.

Prior to coming to Stairways, Vicari served for 4 1/2 years as the Director of the Division of Western Operations of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) in Pittsburgh. There, she coordinated funding between federal, state and local governments as well as implemented evidence-based programs and recovery initiatives. She previously held a number of positions within the state, including serving as acting CEO of Warren State Hospital from December 2009 to June 2010.

Vicari graduated from Clarion University with a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and earned a master's degree in Professional Leadership for Management with a concentration in nonprofit from Carlow College.

Q: What about the executive director position attracted your interest to make the change from an OMHSAS career? 

A: I have been fortunate to have had so many wonderful career opportunities working in behavioral health.  My career path has always been, at some point, to have a leadership role with a behavioral health non-profit organization. When the opportunity at Stairways availed itself, I was quite interested to pursue the leadership position. Stairways has been a leader in behavioral health within the Commonwealth. The opportunity to lead such a great organization with a strong foundation also led to my pursuit of the leadership role. 

Q: What leadership philosophy do you bring with you?

A: I believe in being eclectic in leadership. I believe in the application of transformational leadership which recognizes the strengths of an organization and builds on shared values and a common mission. I also believe a good leader steps backs and allows others to lead as well. There are many leaders within the agency and I look forward to building on those strengths to promote our common mission.  

Q: How is your experience in government a benefit in your position leading Stairways? 

A: I have had the opportunity to develop statewide behavioral health programs, regulatory development and application as well as implementation of both federal and state changes related to healthcare.  I believe the aforementioned coupled with the oversight of the behavioral health HealthChoices Program and the mental health licensure oversight in the western area of Pennsylvania provides a strong and broad basis to lead Stairways in the ever evolving healthcare arena.

Q: What has been your impressions of the programs, staff and environment of Stairways?

A: Stairways is a strong behavioral health provider with a rich community base.  The programs are rooted in recovery principles and the staff supports the wellness of individuals living in the community.  There are many facets to the organization supporting not only recovery focused services but also drug and alcohol treatment, housing, forensics, personal care, as well as evidenced based practices.  

Q: You come to Stairways at a unique time as it has recently formed an affiliation with Beacon Light. How do you see your role of executive director fitting in to this new structure?

A: This is a unique and exciting time for both organizations.  The role of Executive Director is a leadership role that will not only guide Stairways but also be part of the leadership as the affiliation continues to evolve. 

Q: Are there any goals or initiatives that you’d like Stairways to explore and achieve?

A: Stairways has a strategic plan in place that is forward thinking and has goals related to an evolving healthcare system.  In line with the strategic plan, I am hopeful to add to our psychiatric services through the implementation of telepsychiatry.   We will also be focusing on evidence based services as well as strengthening our peer services.  This focus will be around certified peer specialists as well as certified recovery specialists.     

Q: What do you see as Stairways’ role, as the healthcare industry, particularly that of mental health, continues to evolve and change?

A: Stairways will continue to be a behavioral health leader.  We have opportunity to evolve and explore many possibilities including but not limited to the development of behavioral health/physical health services to focus on the whole person, programmatic opportunities as the Commonwealth’s efforts continue to expand healthcare to meet the Federal Affordable Health Care requirements as well advanced clinical models including evidence based practices.

(Photos by Mark Fainstein)

Laurie Bizzarro

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Laurie Bizzarro, a Blended Case Manager and Targeted Outreach Specialist, was recognized as the Stairways Behavioral Health Employee of the Month for the month of December.

Laurie was instrumental in organizing a Thanksgiving dinner for clients at the Zukor Club, which she and a few of Stairways’ Board members volunteered at by helping serve the meal and clean up afterward. The dinner was for members of Stairways’ Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), Personal Care Home (PCH) and Residential Treatment Facility for Adults (RTFA) programs who are often unable to socialize within the community.

Those who attended were vocal in their appreciation for the generosity and warmth they felt at the dinner.

Laurie is hopeful the Zukor Club will host another Thanksgiving dinner for clients this year.

In addition to her work as a case manager, Laurie has also delivered key contributions to Stairways’ outreach efforts by visiting inpatient units and informing people suffering from mental illness of the services available at Stairways.

Laurie exhibits the dedication and spirit that all Stairways employees aspire to.

Newly appointed Operations Manager sheds light on office changes

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beginning in November, Stairways Behavioral Health’s Erie Outpatient clinic (EOP) has undergone several changes to its structure of operations that have resulted in greater continuity of care and streamlined procedures.

Perhaps the most significant change came in the form of the newly created Operations Manager position, a post that has been filled by Ashley Giewont. Since being installed as the Operations Manager, Giewont has worn a number of hats in taking on procedural responsibilities and ensuring things run smoothly at the Stairways site at 2910 State St.

Giewont has been part of EOP’s staff since she performed a practicum while earning her masters of clinical mental health counseling at Gannon University in fall 2012. A full-time employee since 2013, Giewont has served as a therapist and is pursuing a licensure in professional counseling.

She credits the EOP staff for their supportiveness in helping her settle into the new position.

Q: Explain the new role that you are filling.

A: As the Operations Manager at EOP I work closely with all the staff to ensure that all policies and regulations are being followed and adhered to. I also work diligently with the clinical director and lead therapist and nurse to guarantee improved continuity of care, as well as organizing and operationalizing treatment team meetings with the doctors, allied professionals, and therapists. A significant part of this position is making sure that when new policies and procedures are implemented, they are followed through with by all employees and making adjustments as necessary. Feedback from employees and clients alike are important to me in this position as it helps to make necessary changes and adjustments to strengthen the services that are provided. I am very open-minded and welcome input regarding any and all issues. This position, like anything else, is a work in progress and will continue to evolve and grow.

Q: What were the changes that were made and how did they come about?

 A: All outpatient services are constantly growing, evolving, and changing, and there are many recent changes to operations here at EOP that foster growth not only among our services but of our staff as well.  This position has thus far been challenging to me but has inspired me to grow as a person and a professional by challenging my ways of thinking, which is something I thrive off of.

Q: How will these changes and your role improve continuity of care?

A:  This role, as Operations Manager, allows for me to act as a liaison for contact with many supportive services and outside agencies in the community for increased continuity of care for our consumers. My flexibility and organizational skills allow for me to be a contact for our clinic and allows other staff to follow through with their daily tasks and duties.

Q: What does a typical day consist of for you? Is this reflective of the changes that were made and is it indicative of the way EOP now runs as a whole?

A: This is a very difficult question to answer as I have only been in this position just over a month and there is no typical day. I have a lot of direct contact with our clients as well as with all the staff at EOP. Some of my strengths are organizational skills and being able to work quickly and efficiently in any situation that arises. My education and clinical training are an asset to me in this position as it helps me to make sound clinical decisions, know my resources, and work effectively with clients. I am still learning a great deal every day and am constantly growing as a person and as a professional. I am very optimistic and looking forward that in the future we will continue to grow not only among ourselves but in the community as well.

Jennifer LaRoche and Bernadette Valentinetti

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jennifer LaRoche and Bernadette Valentinetti were recognized as the respective Employees of the Months for September and October during a Stairways Behavioral Health’s fall Board of Directors meeting in late November.

LaRoche was also credited for performing a life-saving act, as she sought out and attended to a client she suspected of exhibiting suicidal behavior.

LaRoche, a therapist at Stairways’ Residential Treatment Facility for Adults (RTFA), engaged a client who displayed slurred speech and confusion. Using probing questions, LaRoche ascertained that the client had overdosed and contacted EMS, which arrived to transport the client to the hospital. The client was eventually stabilized while in intensive care.

RTFA Director Melanie Hake and assistant supervisor Keri Walker nominated LaRoche for the accolade.

Valentinetti, a mental health professional/substance abuse specialist for Stairways’ Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team was recently acknowledged for having shown the greatest growth during a recent audit. Valentinetti was commended for her comfort and awareness in developing appropriate approaches with clients.

Valentinetti also developed electronic MAR (Medication Assessment Record) for the ACT team, which has resulted in a reduced workload and more organized record-keeping. She was nominated by ACT team leader Rochelle Youkers.

Stairways is fortunate to have such capable and passionate staff as part of its team.

McCarthy reflects on career

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The walls of Bill McCarthy’s first-floor office are conspicuously devoid of adornments typical of a chief executive save for a pair of small placards strategically placed near Stairways Behavioral Heath’s president and CEO’s desk.

Their absence is not in anticipation of McCarthy’s impending retirement and the vacancy he will leave at the organization upon the end of the year. To be precise, awards and accolades have rarely ever enjoyed a prominent appointment in McCarthy’s office.

Instead, two signs that convey the simple philosophy McCarthy has tried to abide by are situated in their place.

“I am still learning,” reads a sign that sits on McCarthy’s desk, while the other depicts the oft-cited Winston Churchill quote “Never, never, never give up.” The words serve not just as motivation, but offer a built-in defense for the man whose office they reside.

“When people tell me I’ve screwed up or didn’t do something right, I tell them ‘This is the first time I’ve ever had this job, I’m still learning,” McCarthy says with a laugh.

If McCarthy’s ever wanted to learn, he’s just had to draw from his own wealth of experience—more than four decades worth. 

It was during a recent trip to Warren State Hospital— a place McCarthy currently serves as vice chair of the board and will assume the chair position next year—that McCarthy became awash in memories and reflections.

“When I started, Warren State Hospital was really a small village,” he says. “I remember seeing tractors out on the fields harvesting crops because they grew their own food and the doctors lived with their families on the grounds.”

The mental healthcare being offered has a significantly different look as well.

Mental Illness was, in many respects, the last health treatment to utilize an asylum model, McCarthy notes. A long-term hospital not only offered patients a place to remove themselves in an effort to recover, but was also a way to remove them from the rest of society.

“This is the first time I've ever had this job, I'm still learning."

In a way, McCarthy’s career has marked the time of the evolution of the mental health approach.

McCarthy began his career while in college as a houseparent at Sarah Reed Children’s Center, a position he credits for opening his eyes to “the humanity field.”

“I became smitten with the field of helping people,” he recalled, noting in his typical understated wit that he was unsure of his career path before holding this job. “I was originally interested in law, then archeology and anthropology, but it then became a question of ‘do I want to work with dea­­­­d skeletons of people or with people?’”

His uncertainty proved to be temporary, however, as he joined Stairways shortly after college in 1973. As part of a 16-person staff charged with helping a few hundred clients reintegrate into the community, McCarthy found himself addressing the common human issues with the people he served.

“As medicine got better, it opened up doors for people to leave the state hospitals, but where do they go (from there)?” McCarthy, who then worked at Community Care, a 40-bed residential site located at East 7th and French streets, said. “The house we ran really responded to the question ‘What do people want?’ Do they want a job? Do they want to fall in love? Do they want a place to live?

“The programs developed at that time were really to help people with those needs in their lives.”

It was also at this time that McCarthy realized the need for acceptance that is common among all people.

"I learned kindness is free and ought to be dispensed all the time," McCarthy said. "There is no substitute - you can be smart and tough but kindness is what is craved and needed by everyone you meet."

What initially began as an intended two-year stint at Stairways soon took on its own life for McCarthy.

He served as supervisor of Residential Services for five years, held the assistant executive director post for 15 years and eventually assumed CEO and president duties in 1998 at age 50.

During his tenure, McCarthy has seen Stairways grow from a modest operation into a 400-employee, 10,000-client outfit that is in the final stages of an affiliation to make it the most comprehensive behavioral health service provider in the Northwestern Pennsylvania.

For McCarthy, the growth is a testament to the organization’s unique marriage of compassion and resiliency.

“We are a soft company in that we provide great safety and compassion, yet we are tough,” McCarthy said. “We have gone through some major battles over the years and survived.

“It’s one thing to be magnanimous when everything is going right, but when things aren’t going well, how do you respond? That’s one of the things we want to demonstrate to our clients and live by ourselves. I think the fact that we’re over 50 years-old and still so relevant that we were the first organization to be bold enough to pursue such an affiliation shows how tough we are and that we can be relevant for another 50 years.”

McCarthy’s influence at Stairways can be easily observed in a number of different ways, and even extends to his family, as his daughter, Dr. Meghan McCarthy, has followed in his footsteps as well. Meghan serves as a physician at Stairways' Erie Outpatient Clinic.

Though he will soon abandon his position, McCarthy has no plans of doing the same to the organization that has provided him with not just a vocational role, but an identifying one as well.

“It’s like a childhood home that you drive by and have to look into the windows.”

For McCarthy, the view has always been of Stairways.

Home's space remade into "Sensory Room"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Residents at Stairways Behavioral Health’s Personal Care Home were greeted to perceptible changes upon entering the West 8th Street building’s recreation room one day in late September.

And that was entirely the objective when the space received a comprehensive makeover in the creation of the “Sensory Room,” an area where clients can use sensory input to attain a state of self-regulation.

The room seeks to achieve this state by using objects that elicit responses from all senses in hopes of appropriately calming or stimulating depending on the situation.

The idea of the sensory room at PCH was conceived and implemented by Jessica Hull and Lydia Altimus, two occupational therapy students at Gannon University interning at Stairways within the Psychiatric Rehabilitation program.

“We had read some research articles about the effectiveness of sensory rooms on inpatient units in self-regulation,” Altimus said. “The theory behind the Sensory Room is that they have the ability to regulate relaxation and sensory modulation.”

Hull and Altimus, along with Christine Linkie, director of Psych Rehab services, and Heather Filson, PCH director, took the idea to a receptive group of clients who voiced their support for the sensory room.

Filson said the room was discussed among clients in PCH’s Residents’ Council and was met with enthusiasm.

“Several of the clients were very excited,” Filson said. “I really think it will be beneficial for those who are residents. We have 38 people living (here) and each one has their own unique needs for sensory modulation and we hope the room will meet them for everyone.”

Thanks to Stairways’ Client Wellness Fund, Hull and Altimus were able to personally stock the room with items that encourage self-regulation and paint its walls in a soothing shade of green that changes along with the natural light throughout the day.

A weighted blanket creates a natural calming effect for its wearers. Tactile objects, such as soft upholstery covers and Play-Doh promote varying levels of stimulation. A variety of hard and soft candies are available for oral stimulation, which helps bring about relaxation, while scented oils and other aromatic substances, including fresh coffee each morning, affect the olfactory receptors in different ways.

In addition to raising awareness about their sensory input, the sensory room also promotes greater interaction among residents. Hull and Altimus introduced activities likely to spur collaborative participation such as jewelry-making and group sewing and rearranged the furniture in a way more conducive to increased socialization.

“We knew that if we rearranged the TV, and depending on how the furniture was arranged, people would be more likely to participate in other activities,” Hull said.

The concept of what we take in through our senses and how we respond to the input they provide us is one that could provide greater insight into how we are affected by what we perceive in everyday life.

“I think what’s becoming more common is our understanding of how our senses impact mental health,” Linkie said.

Something the sensory room is bringing to the forefront.

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