An 'oasis' for the mentally ill renewed by move uptown

New London - Before he started going to programs at the Oasis Center, Bill Jefferson, a film buff as a teenager, hadn't been to a movie in 30 years.

Jefferson's voice trailed a bit as he trolled for that memory in a life paced by getting high and mental illness.

"I think the last movie I saw was 'A Star Is Born,' with Kris Kristofferson," said Jefferson, a small, thin man in his 50s.

Because of Oasis, Jefferson's love of movies is reborn, and he rarely misses group outings to Waterford or Westbrook to catch a matinee. Recently he's seen the summer blockbusters, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and "Thor."

"I feel like I'm alive again," he said.

The Oasis Center, the recreational and rehabilitation facility operated by Sound Community Services, the regional mental health service organization, is also going through a rebirth.

According to Gail Lawson, Sound Community Services' chief executive officer, Oasis clients suffer from serious biologically based brain illnesses.

Most of the clients have been referred there by staff at Sound Community Services.

"They are there primarily to get help integrating into the community and to practice living successfully," Lawson said.

In July, Oasis, which for decades operated in two locations in downtown New London, moved to a new building on Town Hill on upper Bank Street.

According to Oasis Director Claudia Olson, the spacious new one-story building - which was home to the former Town Hill Opportunities community center and was once a tire store - has allowed it to expand services to its 200 clients.

The new space on Town Hill is part of a wholesale move by Sound Community Services out of downtown New London.

In July, the organization bought the former Nameaug School at 21 Montauk Ave. and has been moving its offices there from its former location in the Harris Building on State Street.

The new building will house Sound Community's clinical services and its offices.

New London zoning laws prohibit rehabilitation centers in the city center, though Lawson said the organization has been grandfathered in and had been looking to vacate downtown for seven years.

'Excellent spot'

The new Oasis Center, in addition to office space, features a full kitchen, a college dorm-style common room with a pool table and a TV area.

"Oasis has gone from 1,500 square feet on State Street to 4,400 square feet on Bank Street," Lawson said. "It's an excellent spot."

Oasis also has a computer room and - a key addition - a laundry and a shower for use by the clients. Olson said that some of the clients needed a safe and familiar place to shower and wash clothes.

There's also small deck behind the building with a table and Adirondack chairs.

The busy days at Oasis are usually Tuesday and Thursday, and most clients say they come at least once a week.

The center opens daily at 8 a.m., and by 10 a.m. clients have made their way there either by Sound Community's van service or their own means.

Usually, the TV's on, tuned to CNN, in case Jay Gardner, a Sound Community client who works as customer service representative at Oasis, wants to hold one of his news discussion groups. And the talk at Oasis is the same as you'd probably overhear mornings at your local diner.

"We've been talking about the economy and especially Social Security," Gardner said. "About 100 percent of the people here are on Social Security or disability. I answer questions the best I can."

On other mornings, there will be a sing-along, and acoustic guitar favorites like "Teach Your Children," by Crosby Stills and Nash or the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling" echo around the building.

In the mornings, the kitchen is the other center of activity, as clients there gather around sipping coffee and talking.

A couple times a month, either Olson or a guest will lead a cooking demonstration. Last week, Olson and a group of clients baked a cherry cobbler and a peach pie.

But in addition to the fun and educational stuff, cooking classes and singing groups, Oasis is also a venue for group therapy sessions.

Alexis Byrd, a social rehabilitation specialist at Sound Community, is a counselor in the Modified Intensive Rehabilitation Program, or MIRP, which holds daily sessions in the computer room.

"We offer lessons on designated topics," Byrd said.

The group sessions, attended by between 10 and 12 people, cover nearly all the aspects of living with mental illness such as taking medication, preventing relapses and seemingly insurmountable challenges of daily life.

As Byrd points out, the sessions are largely led by clients, as she'll just pose a question and let them take over the discussion.

"It's not a rigid environment," Byrd said. "There's openness to Oasis."

In addition to the programs at the center, the organization, much like a senior center, sponsors several off-site trips both in the region and further afield.

This summer, Oasis clients, who often decided for themselves on trip destinations, have visited High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme and the Book Barn in Niantic. Also, Dairy Queen and Rita's have proved popular.

According to Jessica DeFlumer, director of community support programs, it's important to Sound Community's mission that clients spend time out and about.

Olson said that a number of the clients also volunteer in the community.

Also, DeFlumer said in the coming months, clients at Oasis will advocate for more state and federal funding for mental health programs.

"They have an advocacy group that will be calling senators and congressmen to let them know how they feel," DeFlumer said.

What is clear is how the clients feel about the Oasis Center. It's a place - a safe place - to be themselves and enjoy each other's company.

"People get lifted up," Jefferson said. "It's what makes it so special."

s.chupaska@theday.com

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