Mental health agency delighted to have everything under one roof

New London - For Beverly Rice, office manager at Sound Community Services, directing clients of the mental health agency from her new work station in its spacious new waiting room is "like heaven."

"It's like going from the slums to the penthouse," Rice, who's worked for the agency, the largest provider of psychiatric and counseling services for adults in New London County, for 17 years, said last week.

This summer, the nonprofit agency moved its counseling offices out of Harris Place on State Street, a cramped, second-floor space in the heart of downtown where parking was often a problem. The agency had been in Harris Place for at least 15 years, expanding its use of that space in 2008 despite objections at the time from city zoning officials, when it moved its day treatment programs there from Green Street.

The agency's outpatient services, along with a drop-in social center, the AXS Center young adult drop-in program and a pharmacy, are now all located at 21 Montauk Ave., a converted former school building the agency purchased four years ago. Sound Community Service's administrative offices have been in the school building for most of that time, with the rest of the space used by doctors and lawyers' offices that have since moved. Now, thanks to renovations made possible by a $970,000 state grant, the agency has consolidated all its offices and services into a single location.

"Client services had always been like an island, they were never fully acclimated into the administrative organization," said Gino DeMaio, who became chief executive officer of the agency last year after a troubled period that ended with the resignation of three of its top administrators.

DeMaio said that along with the move and consolidation, the agency, which serves about 750 clients per month, has been reorganizing staff and revamping programs, including adding some evening and weekend hours for clients. Last year 1,700 individuals used the agency's services, DeMaio said.

"We're trying to identify barriers," said Shawna Holzer, who recently joined the agency as senior director of programs. "We do have people who work, so we're going to be offering appointments until 7 or 8 at night and have some things on the weekends."

The new client space offers more comfortable, professional space with greater privacy for clients and counselors, as well as a larger in-house pharmacy run by Genoa.

"I love it. It's like night and day," said Kevin Messier, the pharmacy manager.

In addition to one-on-one therapy services, Sound also provides intensive day treatment programs for groups of people newly out of detoxification or inpatient psychiatric programs who meet three times a week. The AXS Center for young adults, a new program originally slated to open in a building on Bank Street, is attracting up to 20 people per day for help with job training, housing searches, parenting and other life skills, as well as social activities.

The Oasis Center, where about 50 Sound clients gather daily to socialize and hold recreational activities, had been in a separate building on Bank Street. Holzer said the space now in use at the Montauk Avenue building will be renovated "to look like a Starbucks," with wood floors, new furniture, fresh paint and a kitchen where lunches will be prepared and served.

DeMaio said the renovations, including new administrative offices on the third floor, should be completed by this fall. In the meantime, the agency, which receives most of its $10 million annual budget from state and federal funds, is working to build partnerships with other agencies and increase its visibility, he said. As an outward manifestation of that goal, there are now large attractive signs with the agency's name outside the Montauk Avenue building. Previously the agency's name was on a small sign not easily seen from the road, and there was only on a small sign in the lobby of Harris Place.

"We had no identity in the community. We didn't have an connection to the community," DeMaio said. "Now I want the name to be out there."

j.benson@theday.com
Twitter: @BensonJudy

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