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UConnectCare named one of 27 ‘Best Companies’ in NYS

By Press Release

Press release:

The New York State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management, Best Companies Group and Rochester Business Journal have named UConnectCare Behavioral Health Services as one of the 2024 Best Companies to Work for in New York.

This is the sixth consecutive year that the local nonprofit agency, formerly known as Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, has been recognized by Best Companies to Work for in New York, a research-driven program that examines a company’s practices, programs and benefits and also surveys its employees for their perspectives.

UConnectCare was one of 27 businesses in the state receiving the honor in the medium companies (100-249 employees) category.

“As our agency continues to grow, I am especially proud of how our staff has pulled together to provide a wider spectrum of services, while also expressing their satisfaction on the survey in terms of their workplace experience,” UConnectCare Chief Executive Officer John Bennett said. “I am delighted by the level of professionalism and compassion displayed by our employees throughout the organization.”

To be considered, companies must have at least 15 full-time or part-time employees working in New York; be a for-profit or not-for-profit business or government entity; be a publicly or privately held business; have a facility in the State of New York and be in business a minimum of one year.

There were two parts used to determine the rankings. The first consisted of evaluating each nominated company's workplace policies, practices and demographics, worth approximately 25 percent of the total evaluation. The second part consisted of an employee survey to measure the employee experience, which consisted of 75 percent of the total. The combined scores determined the top companies and the final rankings.

For more information on the Best Companies to Work for in New York program, visit www.BestCompaniesNY.com.

Quality and Quantity: UConnectCare celebrates expansion of services, honors Friends, scholars

By Mike Pettinella
UConnectCare friends
UCONNECTCARE ‘FRIENDS’: Receiving “Friends of UConnectCare” awards for 2024 are, seated from left, Dr. Davina Moss, Erin Martin, Pam Gefell, Gordon Luthart; standing, GO Health staff members Paul Pettit, Sherri Bensley, Emily Penrose and Meghan Sheridan, and Riverview Pharmacy representatives Tammy Kublas and Noah Carpenter. Submitted photos.

Wednesday afternoon’s annual meeting at Terry Hills Restaurant in Batavia may have been the first under the name UConnectCare, but it served as a celebration of the many ways the agency formerly known as Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse is having a positive impact on community health.

Chief Executive Officer John Bennett, speaking to 73 employees, board members and award recipients, outlined a long list of recently added programs that, in his words, “are building access to essential services for those in need.”

“As far as quality of care, I look at two things – our staff and board members who go above and beyond each and every day, and the expansion of our service over the past seven years,” Bennett said.

The agency changed its name to UConnectCare Behavioral Health Services last fall to reflect its work toward implementing programs to reach a wide spectrum of people in the areas of prevention, treatment, recovery, detoxification, supportive living and residential.

In 2023, Bennett said, the agency received three significant grants:

-- A federal Rural Communities Opioid Response Program Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome II grant for $498,848 from the Health Services and Resource Administration to provide the Healthy Moms/Healthy Babies program to pregnant and postpartum women.

-- A federal Targeted Capacity Expansion Special Projects grant in the amount of $375,000 to provide harm reduction services in the community.

-- A Statewide Health Care Facility System Transformation grant for $985,250 from the NYS Department of Health to improve building capacity in the integrated outpatient treatment program in Batavia.

UConnectCare’s reach, as indicated by the 2023 numbers, is expanding as well, Bennett said, noting that more than 35,000 people were served by the agency’s Prevention department and more than 39,000 counseling visits were provided.

“Furthermore, we had 2,400 visitors at The Recovery Station (on Clinton Street Road), served 339 people in community residence or detox settings, served 1,538 patients in integrated outpatient services and provided 380 childcare sessions,” he said.

FRIENDS OF UCONNECT CARE’ HONORED

Four individuals, a public health agency and a Buffalo pharmacy received “Friends of UConnectCare” awards at the luncheon.

Honorees are as follows:

-- Erin Martin, case manager at Genesee Justice. Nominated by the Batavia clinic, Martin was recognized for her continued service to the agency by helping clients face their legal consequences and by encouraging them to make positive steps toward improving their lives.

-- Gordon Luthart, health teacher at Medina Junior-Senior High School. Nominated by Orleans County Prevention, Luthart, a Marine Corps veteran, was awarded for working with UConnectCare over the past decade to provide prevention education in the classroom.

-- Pam Gefell, mental health therapist for Orleans County Mental Health. Nominated by Orleans County Treatment, Gefell, a former UConnectCare counselor, provides evaluation and counseling services on a weekly basis in Albion for those who have co-occurring (substance use disorder and mental health issues) disorders.

-- Dr. Davina Moss, founder of Positive Direction & Associates, Inc., of Buffalo and creator of The Positive Direction Model. Nominated by Recovery Services, she is instrumental in starting and sustaining the agency’s Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies program. Dr. Moss said she shares the award with Jessica Budzinack, coordinator of UConnectCare’s program to help the pregnant and post-natal population.

-- Genesee/Orleans Department of Health (GO Health). Nominated by Genesee Prevention, GO Health partners with UConnectCare on the GOW Opioid Task Force and joined forces with UConnectCare on the HEALing Genesee group over the past 18 months. Both agencies have worked to implement new programs focusing on Naloxone and fentanyl education and medications for opioid use disorder, including the launching of the task force’s Text for Naloxone Line.

-- Riverview Pharmacy, Buffalo. Nominated by Residential/Detox Services, the pharmacy was acknowledged for its reliable and dependable service to those on medication and its communication with UConnectCare’s nursing staff.

UConnectCare scholars
UCONNECTCARE SCHOLARS: UConnectCare Foundation scholars for 2024 are, seated from left, Brianne Amico and Megan Gates; standing, Kenna MacKenzie and Chloe Crossett.

FOUR RECEIVE FOUNDATION SCHOLARSHIPS

Three graduating seniors and a Genesee Community College graduate each will be receiving $1,000 scholarships, courtesy of the UConnectCare Foundation.

They are:

-- Kenna MacKenzie, Le Roy High School, who will be attending SUNY Geneseo to major in Psychology.

-- Megan Gates, Kendall High School, who will be attending SUNY Brockport in the Nursing program.

-- Chloe Crossett, Kendall High School, who will be attending SUNY Brockport in pursuit of a degree in Social Work.

-- Brianne Amico, who earned an associate’s degree in human services from GCC before enrolling at SUNY Plattsburgh. She plans to work toward a master’s degree in social work at SUNY Binghamton.

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

Time to stop stigma surrounding mental health, substance use: Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf

By Mike Pettinella
Ryan Leaf
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf speaking to the public at Genesee Community College on Wednesday night. Photos by Howard Owens.

Growing up in what he calls “the cowboy culture” of rural Montana, former National Football League quarterback Ryan Leaf said that he never saw another man reach out for help with mental health issues because of the stigma associated with it.

Leaf failed to live up to the expectations of the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL draft, leaving professional football after a relatively uneventful five seasons. He then turned to drug use, which led to his arrest and incarceration for 32 months.

Today, a week shy of his 48th birthday, he tells his story at venues throughout the nation when he’s not commentating on college football and the NFL as a radio and television host. 

On Wednesday night, he capped his appearance in Batavia with a two-hour talk in front of 70 people at Genesee Community College. Earlier in the day, he spoke to about 300 high school 11th- and 12th-graders at the GCC gymnasium (see story below).

Leaf's presentations were sponsored by UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse).

Leaf shared that he didn’t have the ability to cope with failure, instead blaming others and taking a self-righteous and “I’m better than you” attitude. He said he didn’t know where to turn when his emotional health worsened.

“I wasn’t used to seeing people being vulnerable or transparent, it's just not,” he said. “It's a huge reason why I didn't seek help because I grew up in what you would consider a cowboy culture of Montana (and) then in locker rooms in college and in the NFL where you've never seen another man simply say, ‘I'm really struggling here. Can you help me?’

“So, if we haven't seen it, what would make us think anybody would be able to do it? Right? It's not taught. What has been taught is rub some dirt on it, get it back in there, toughen up.”

He went on to say that his father, who he said he admires, told him, “Why can’t you just stop (taking the Vicodin pills that led him astray)? Yeah, if I could stop, I would have done that a long time ago. Clearly, this was not a choice. And the idea was stigma exists -- the idea that someone may know that you need help is more frightening than actually getting the help that you need.

“That's what stigma is, and it will be the last rail that you have to climb over for people to take mental health and substance abuse seriously.”

Married with two young children, Leaf, now a Connecticut resident, illustrated his point by comparing those with a medical illness with those suffering from mental illness.

“A perfect example, two kids get sick in the same neighborhood. One has leukemia and one deals with a mental health disorder or substance use disorder. The difference in comparison to how the public then treats the family of the leukemia child in terms of support, food, things of that nature in comparison to what the individual family deals with when it comes to the mental health side of things … they're ostracized, they’re isolated, they’re talked about … when in reality, there's medical science that exactly the same thing exists. It's a disease.”

Leaf, realizing that some in the audience were in recovery, credited those in attendance for coming to hear him speak.

“You had a choice to be at home, stay at home, and not do something to try to be part of the solution tonight within your community,” he said. “So, I applaud all of you and you should applaud yourselves for being able to go off and do that and be a part of it.”

As for his own life, Leaf said he was driven by competition – “my first drug of choice,” he said -- at a young age and developed into a three-sport star (basketball, football and baseball) in high school.

“I worked harder than anybody else, and so I was rewarded with the opportunity to play at any college,” he said. “I was able to get an education for free and relieve my parents of the burden of having to have to foot the bill or something like that,” he said. 

He said he didn’t fit into the Montana culture and looked to escape, signing with Washington State University, where he led his team to a trip to the Rose Bowl and became a Heisman Trophy finalist in his junior year.

His collegiate success led to him being selected by the San Diego Chargers right after Peyton Manning in the 1998 NFL draft. With it came a five-year $31 million contract, including an $11.5 million signing bonus.

Despite Leaf’s extraordinary athletic talent, his dream of a long NFL career and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame never materialized as he was ill-equipped to handle adversity. He ended up playing for four teams before calling it quits. From there, his dependency on Vicodin led to possession and burglary charges as he continually searched for a way to ease his inner pain.

Eventually, after two years in prison, he was able to turn his life around by finally considering the plight of others around him.

“When you make it about someone else, you're not thinking about you at all, you're not thinking about your problems and your troubles with things you've dealt with, you're actually thinking about someone else's issues,” he said. “That's what empathy is … you actually put yourself in the shoes of someone else going through something. And I don't think I really had an empathetic bone in my body until I was confronted with all my stuff.

“There was no talk of mental illness or drugs or alcohol in my life when I got to the NFL because there just wasn't. It turns out that I was dealing with mental health issues. I just didn't understand it.”

Leaf compared himself to Peyton Manning, who is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, as he pointed out the public’s perception of success.

“If I placed Peyton Manning right here and I stood next to him right now in front of us and asked you to point out the failure and the success, I don’t think it would be hard for anybody to do the pointing,” he said. “But that’s how people view and define success and failure.

“We’re both far removed from playing NFL football. He’s been retired for some time and I as well. If you look at our resume and our life right now, Peyton is a 48-year-old father of two and so am I. I own a profession and consulting company -- a broadcasting one a does he. We both do a ton of philanthropic things and give back to our communities. We both are very happy with our lot in life and … suffice to say, we both have the life of our dreams.”

Leaf said the “baggage” of the past doesn’t define a person’s life today and hope for the future.

“I mean a lot of people quit from that aspect of things like it will never get better. And I think it's the furthest from the truth,” he said. “It does not matter at all what has gone on in your past if you’re willing to accept that and surrender to who you are and why you're here. It's all about what you do today and tomorrow.”

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

Leaf
GCC Leaf

Leaf urges students to focus on attitude, behavior, effort

By Mike Pettinella

Attitude. Behavior. Effort.

“Those are three things you can control,” said Ryan Leaf, former National Football League quarterback and now a sought-after motivational speaker, to about 300 high school juniors and seniors on Wednesday morning during a prom awareness event at the Genesee Community College gymnasium.

Leaf, the No. 2 selection in the 1998 NFL draft (right after Peyton Manning), came to Batavia as a guest of UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse).

Following a stellar collegiate career at Washington State University where he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in his junior year, Leaf was drafted by the San Diego Chargers – receiving a five-year, $31 million contract, including an $11.5 million signing bonus.

The Great Falls, Mont. Native said that being handed that kind of money only reinforced his belief that he could do anything he wanted.

“Money, power and prestige; I had it all,” he said to the students from Batavia High, Oakfield-Alabama, Elba, Byron-Bergen and Lyndonville at the outset of what turned out to be a two-hour talk. “I really felt that I was more important than anyone else.”

With wins in his first two NFL starts, Leaf was on top of the world. But in week three of his rookie season, a loss to Kansas City, he had “the worst game of my life” and was devastated.

“I wasn’t equipped to deal with it,” he said, adding that he experienced “arrested development” at age 13. “I was humiliated and embarrassed.”

Life in the NFL went downhill quickly after that, with Leaf sharing that he doesn’t remember many good things about his five-year NFL career. He went on to play for Dallas, Tampa Bay and Seattle before mental health issues prompted him to, in his words, “walk away from the think I wanted to do since I was 4 years old.”

Falling into depression and living under the burden as being known as one of the biggest draft busts ever, Leaf said he turned to taking Vicodin to ease his pain.

“I didn’t want to feel anything and the Vicodin did that for me,” he said. “It was eight years of a constant chase.”

Leaf said he squandered all of his money and resorted to going through friends medicine cabinets in search of his high – and then to entering strangers’ homes to find pills. Law enforcement caught up to him in March 2012 and he was sentenced to seven years in prison for burglary and possession of narcotics.

“For 26 of the 32 months that I served, I did nothing much watch a little TV at the end of my bed,” he said. “I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be there.”

Fortunately for him, his cellmate urged him to help some of the other inmates learn how to read. Reluctantly, he accepted the offer and, later on, he set out to become a substance abuse counselor.

Over the past 12 years, Leaf, 47, has maintained sobriety and has worked tirelessly to improve his life through AA meetings, therapy, prayer and meditation, and reaching out to others.

“What changed is (that I embraced) service to others, and it’s not money-generated,” he said. “Just sharing my story. And (addressing the students) your life’s story is just as inspirational and impactful as mine because you’re still here. Sharing that is the most serviceable thing you could do.”

Leaf, a Connecticut resident, talked about how he changed his attitude toward women – “I never respected women,” he said – and speaking glowingly of his wife, 6 ½-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter.

When not traveling around the U.S. speaking about substance use and mental health stigma, Leaf, chief executive officer of RAM Consultant, Inc., serves as a college and NFL analyst for Westwood One Sports and hosts a radio and television shows.

Stating that he’s “OK” with his past, Leaf said, “We all screw up and then think it’s the end of the world. But it’s not. You can stumble and fall but you need to keep trying. It doesn’t matter what happened it the past.”

He encouraged the students to “do the little things” that provide strength in times of temptation.

“You always have a choice,” he said, mentioning drinking and driving, drug use and sexual activity. “Enjoy the next couple weeks (before proms and graduations). It’s fleeting. It goes by so fast.”

Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf to speak about substance use disorder, mental health on May 8

By Press Release
Ryan Leaf
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, right, and former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Ham at a Legends & Stars event in February 2023 at Batavia Downs Gaming. Now a motivational speaker, Leaf is scheduled to speak at Genesee Community College on May 8. Photo by Mike Pettinella.

Press release:

“Twelve years ago today I woke up on the floor of a jail cell...with no hope or possible idea what could be! There was no possibility of this life, no love of my life, no career, no future, no family, no recovery," Leaf wrote on X. "You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending! There is Hope!” – Ryan Leaf, April 1, 2024.

In 1998, the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Leaf, standout quarterback from Washington State University, as the No. 2 overall pick in the National Football League Draft behind Peyton Manning. A finalist for the Heisman Trophy following his junior year, the future looked bright for the Great Falls, Mont., native.

However, dreams of a storied NFL career turned into a nightmare for the strong-armed 6-foot5-inch, 235-pound signal caller as issues involving bad behavior, injuries, work ethic and focus -- beyond poor play – limited his time as a pro to four nonproductive years.

Leaf went into a downward spiral, eventually ending up in prison for burglary and drug-related offenses – a period of time he referred to in his statement above.

Although he wasn’t able to survive in the world of professional football, Leaf has turned his life around – carving out a respected space throughout the United States as a motivational speaker and ambassador for sobriety.

He said he has been in recovery from substance use disorder for the past 11 years, and has devoted his life to helping others overcome the stigma of mental health and addiction as a program ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community and CEO/President of RAM Consultant, Inc.

Leaf, 47, is coming to Batavia in May to share his experiences, both triumph and challenges, and offer invaluable lessons in resilience and the power of determination.

“Asking for help is the strongest thing you’ll ever do,” Leaf says, referring to those struggling with substance use.

Leaf also works as a college football analyst for the ESPN network.

UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) invites the public to attend his presentation, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 8 at Genesee Community College, Room T102.

To reserve your seat, call 585-815-1883 or send an email to prevention@uconnectcare.org by May 1.

Soul Food Brunch dishes ‘food for thought’ while commemorating Black History Month

By Mike Pettinella
kenyetta
Kenyetta Reese
Photo by Mike Pettinella.

The first Soul Food Brunch at GoArt! on Tuesday afternoon provided both tasty African-American cuisine and some honest food for thought.

The gathering at East Main and Bank streets drew about 60 people, including members of Genesee County’s Black-owned businesses that were featured on a flyer handed out to the attendees.

After enjoying a menu of fried chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, eggs, greens, macaroni and cheese, banana pudding and lemon pound cake, many of the attendees stuck around for a brief presentation led by brunch organizer Kenyetta Reese, a case manager at UConnectCare.

While the event was set up to highlight Black History Month, Reese noted that she and her family have been subjected to racism in recent months and years.

“I’ve actually experienced racism in the past six months,” she said. “So, if you could raise your hand here if you have also experienced racism in the past six months? How about in the past 30 days?”

Several people raised their hands.

Reese said recent events “have stirred up some trauma that she had from all of the hockey seasons that I was quiet.”

RECOUNTING INSTANCES OF RACISM
“My presence was loud, but I was somewhat quiet,” she recalled. “So, this event is for my son. He’s somewhere in this building.

“For every single time he was called the N-word on the ice, from the stands, for every unnecessary penalty, for the time parents called the police on him for checking their kid into the boards. Yes, someone actually called the police.”

She said her son was kicked out of games “for no reason.”

“For every game he cried, and I didn’t know. This event is for him, and I will no longer be quiet. His time is right now,” she said to applause.

Reese said that blatant racism is dismissed or disregarded.

“Microaggressions or exclusionary behaviors, if you will, boldly still exist and live hard for people of color still in 2024,” she offered. “With that said, we are here to celebrate Black History Month by sharing knowledge and a meal. Most importantly, to celebrate one another with two allies of our community and our workplace.”

She encouraged attendees to meet someone new today as “there’s a lot of power and strength in this room and in this building right now.”

MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT IS LACKING
Reese’s daughter, Tzyonah, took the stage, providing statistics pertaining to Black people and mental health.

“Did you know that 63 percent of black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness?” she said. “People may experience shame about having a mental illness and worry that they may be discriminated against due to a condition.

“Nearly 90 percent of Black and African American people over the age of 12 with a substance use disorder did not receive treatment.

"In 2018, 58 percent of Black and African-American young adults with serious mental illness did not receive treatments.

"According to the APA (American Psychological Association), only 4 percent of psychologists are African-American. African American adults are 20% more likely to experience mental health issues than the rest of the population.

"Twenty-five percent of African-Americans seek treatment for a mental health issue compared to 40 percent of White individuals.”

Tzyonah said that she “struggles with” mental health issues … but continues to “work on myself and I continue to grow.”

“I remain so unbelievably vibrant, positive, resilient, strong, independent, hardworking.”

She said her custom printing business, Made by Tzy, provides her with a creative outlet “that brings me joy.”

“It gives me a voice and a platform to create dialogue and showcase the beauty, triumph and struggle of the Black experience through my art.”

THE MOORS: AHEAD OF THEIR TIME
From there, Brandon Armstrong, owner of the first Black-owned barber shop in Genesee County – Royals at 317 Ellicott St., Batavia, took a few minutes to talk about the Moors, African people around the 700s AD that, in his words, “were very smart and civilized back in those days.”

“They were well-studied in science and math … and they ushered in like a renaissance era,” he said. “Europe was very uncivilized. They weren’t bathing; there was a lot of sickness, a lot of diseases, and they were living with their animals.”

Armstrong said the Moors “came in with medicine – rubbing alcohol, disinfectant, soap – and showed the people how to groom themselves and bathe. They brought them clothing.”

He mentioned that the Moors originated the famous Italian dress shoe, the Moorigator.

“If you just look at that the word Moori, it’s a variation of the word Moorish. Right? And then if you look at the gator, the gator isn't indigenous to Italy, right? So, we see the black influence, even to this day, down to the shoes and from African culture.”

GOART! TO CREATE ‘BLACK SPACE’
GoArt! Executive Director Gregory Hallock followed Reese by announcing the agency has received a grant from BlackSpace, a New York City-based nonprofit collective of planners, architects, artists and designers devoted to creating spaces in communities to shine a light on Black culture and creativity.

He said he has scheduled a gathering at 6 p.m. March 11 at GoArt! for people to share ideas with architects for the new space.

“So, a space that we're digging down is available for us to do what we want to it, because it's not historic,” Hallock said, speaking of plans to install two art studios/classrooms, wood workshop, storage room, gallery and other amenities in the building’s basement. “It will become historic once it’s finished.”

Cathy Mack, a GoArt! director said most in the Black community aren’t aware of the programs that are available and encouraged those citizens to make reservations to attend the meeting and provide their input.

Hallock also reported that the agency is collaborating with another nonprofit to build a new 18,000-square-foot space in Medina that will include galleries, a podcast studio, a film studio, artisan shops, a music studio, artist-in-resident spaces, art classrooms and a music garden.

soul food brunch
Fried chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and mac and cheese were on the menu at Tuesday's Soul Food Brunch at GoArt!
Jada
Jada Rolle of Le Roy's Transformation Salon addresses the gathering at the Soul Food Brunch on Tuesday. Photos by Mike Pettinella.

Federal grant opens door for UConnectCare to provide harm reduction services, mobile unit

By Press Release
mobile unit
Johnny Vidal, outreach peer specialist, and Erin Phelps, Harm Reduction coordinator/case manager, stand next to UConnectCare's mobile unit that travels to different locations in Genesee and Orleans counties to help those struggling with substance use disorder. Submitted photo.

Press release:

A federal grant to provide harm reduction, treatment and/or recovery support services is empowering UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) to meet those struggling with substance use disorder “where they’re at.”

The nonprofit agency has begun an Open Access program that will operate three days per week at The Recovery Station, 5256 Clinton St. Rd., Batavia, as well as a Harm Reduction Mobile Outreach unit that will travel to several locations in the two counties five days per week.

“Both programs reflect the agency’s goal of “meeting them where they’re at, without judgment,” said Erin Phelps, Harm Reduction coordinator/case manager. “Those seeking services will be greeted by a trained Peer Advocate to assist in developing a plan for the next steps and answer questions regarding recovery.”

Phelps and Amy Kabel, project director, emphasized that services will be available to residents, even if they’re not ready for agency intervention.

“Harm reduction is about keeping people alive and being ready to help them when they’re ready,” Phelps said, prompting Kabel to add, “or maybe they never are.”

Walk-ins are welcome to utilize Open Access. The program’s hours of service are 3-7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays at The Recovery Station.

The mobile unit will be set up in front of Genesee County Mental Health on the first and third Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and at Orleans County Mental Health on the second and fourth Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It also will go to Medina, Le Roy, Lyndonville and other venues in the Batavia area each month.

Johnny Vidal, outreach peer specialist, and Felicia Maybee, Open Access counselor, are part of the team that works on the mobile unit.

Phelps said harm reduction is a “compassionate approach to drug use,” focusing on positive change and safety without requiring that individuals stop using drugs as a precondition for support. Services include peer support, case management, transportation, naloxone training, fentanyl test strips, care/hygiene kits and parent/family support.

She added that a national harm reduction exchange event is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 15 at a site to be determined.

Treatment evaluations will be available to provide referrals to the appropriate harm reduction support, recovery support and/or treatment, such as detox, inpatient or outpatient.

For more information about the program, opioid overdose prevention training and to see the mobile unit schedule, go to www.uconnectcare.org or the UConnectCare or The Recovery Station Facebook pages, or send an email to harmreduction@uconnectcare.org.

Philosophy based on ‘Housing with Dignity’ drives UConnectCare’s residential services

By Mike Pettinella
detox center
UConnectCare’s Detox Center, which is located behind the Atwater Community Residence on East Main Street in Batavia. Submitted photo.

In an ongoing effort to provide the most efficient and compassionate treatment methods for those struggling with substance use disorder, UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) has expanded its residential services program.

“Professional studies show the positive impact that recovery residences have in both outpatient and inpatient settings,” said Allison Parry-Gurak, director of Residential Services at UConnectCare. “With that being said, we offer a detox center and residential settings to meet a wide range of individuals at various stages of their recovery journey.”

According to a study by the Recovery Research Institute, utilization of recovery residences, also called sober homes or halfway houses, improves substance use outcome. At UConnectCare, these residences are alcohol and drug-free living environments that provide peer support and other services for those seeking recovery from SUD.

Parry-Gurak said the local nonprofit agency provides various level of care including the conversion of Atwater House to an “820 program.”

This allows UConnectCare to offer three “elements of care” when it comes to residential services – (1) a medically supervised program for those with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms or, stabilization; (2) a structure and supportive community living experience that builds a foundation for recovery, or rehabilitation; (3) case management and long-term assistance through a variety of programs or, reintegration.

Additionally, UConnectCare operates supportive living, transitional safety units and permanent supportive housing programs in both Genesee and Orleans counties.

They include the following:

-- Atwater Community Residence in Batavia, a short-term (usually three months) home that offers 21 beds for men and women, ages 18 and older, and features in-house recovery-focused groups, individual therapy and vocational training.

-- A detox/stabilization center, located behind the Atwater Home, a 16-bed facility that provides shorter term medically supervised withdrawal and stabilization services for adults who are struggling with SUD. UConnectCare has an “open access” policy, starting at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday as well as late admission under specific guidelines, Parry-Gurak said.

-- Supportive living beds, 19 of them in Genesee County and five in Orleans County.

-- Transitional safety units, housing for six to nine months on average, with the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative program an avenue for families dealing with substance use issues.

-- Permanent supportive housing.

“All of these programs are under our ‘Housing with Dignity’ umbrella, which really means that we strive to provide the best care to our clients in a welcoming and safe environment,” Parry-Gurak said. “Recovery housing is a valuable part of our continuum of care that can help people transition to an independent life and improve their substance use outcomes.”

UConnectCare offers other housing opportunities, including The Reentry Program that helps connect individuals returning to the community after incarceration services such as substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, housing, food, clothing, employment and/or job training, childcare, transportation and medical care.

Parry-Gurak, a UConnectCare employee for 5 ½ years, has been in her current position since November 2021. She reported that the agency is seeking full- and part-time professional counselors, medical staff (LPN, RN), residential aides and food service workers.

“UConnectCare has been a Best Company in New York every year since 2018 and truly is a great place to work,” she said. “The agency offers flexible scheduling that values a balance between work and family, paid time off, benefits for full-time employees and a cooperative, team atmosphere.”

For more information about UConnectCare’s residential services or employment, go to www.uconnectcare.org.

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

UConnectCare continues foundation scholarship program, deadline March 8

By Press Release

Press Release:

UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) is continuing its Foundation Scholarship program for 2024.

Four $1,000 scholarships will be awarded, UConnectCare Chief Executive Officer John Bennett announced.

They are as follows:

  • One to a Genesee County high school student.
  • One to a Orleans County high school student.
  • One to an adult student pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
  • One to a technical/trade school student.

Bennett said that the scholarships, which will be awarded at the agency’s annual membership meeting in May, will go to individuals pursuing their education at an institution of higher learning in the fields of human services or social services.

“With a goal of improving community health, the board of directors of both UConnectCare and the UConnectCare Foundation are excited about the prospects of supporting those who are committed to the behavioral health field,” Bennett said. “Without question, agencies such as ours are always ready to hire educated, dedicated, and skilled employees.”

He noted that students enrolled in a Genesee or Orleans County school can apply for the scholarship even if their primary residence is in another county.

Applications are available on the UConnectCare website – www.uconnectcare.org – or can be obtained by contacting Diane Klos at Diane Klos at 585-815-1883 or dklos@unconnectcare.org. Completed applications must be received via email or postmarked by March 8.

Other pertinent scholarship information is as follows:

  • Applicant must be accepted at an accredited college or university and enrolled in or matriculated in an eligible program/major.
  • Eligible programs or majors include Social Work, Nursing, Health Science, Mental Health Counseling, Psychology, or Human Services.
  • Current UConnectCare employees, board members and UConnectCare Foundation board members are NOT eligible.
  • Relatives of UConnectCare employees, board members and UConnectCare Foundation board members ARE eligible.
  • Applicant must provide academic history such as high school and/or college transcripts.
  • Applicant must provide two letters of recommendation from someone who knows the applicant’s work/volunteer/academic history. Letters from relatives will not be accepted.
  • Applicant must provide a resume or personal biography including work history, volunteer experiences, and extra-curricular activities.
  • Applicant must provide an essay that addresses educational and employment objectives as they relate to the mission of UConnectCare. Financial need, volunteerism, employment history, and civic involvement will be given careful consideration.
  • The scholarship monies will be awarded upon completion of the fall semester. The award recipient must provide a copy of their transcript demonstrating at least a 2.0 GPA.
  • Applicant may be invited for an interview before final awards are made.

'Go-to guy' Helenbrook honored for 20 years at UConnectCare

By Press Release
longevity
UConnectCare recognized 11 employees with longevity awards this week. Seated from left, Sheila Rolle Smith, Jeff Helenbrook, Barb Bowman; standing from left, Allison Parry-Gurak, Lauren Swimline, Trisha Allen, Judy Pratt, Nicole Anderson. Others honored were MaryLou Szewczyk, Peter Whyman and Jocelynn Congdon.  Submitted photo.

Press release:

For two decades, Jeff Helenbrook has been the go-to guy when it comes to maintenance, repairs and related responsibilities at UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse).

Helenbrook was honored for his 20 years of employment at the nonprofit agency this week -- receiving a standing ovation from his fellow employees at a reception at Terry Hills Restaurant.

He and 10 other employees were recognized with longevity awards by UConnectCare Chief Executive Officer John Bennett.

“Jeff started with the agency on a part-time, temporary basis after his antique store was hit by a semi and destroyed,” Bennett said. “He came to work at Atwater (Community Residence) and was only going to stay on until he got the insurance money.”

As it turned out, the settlement took about eight years so Helenbrook stayed on at the agency, keeping the buildings, according to Bennett, “in tip-top shape.” Helenbrook’s job title today is facilities director.

An antique car buff, Helenbrook received the original catalogs of the 1930 Franklin and 1936 Pierce Arrow, two of the several vintage autos that he owns.

Others recognized at the luncheon:

15 years – MaryLou Szewczyk, counselor; Peter Whyman, residential tech.

5 years – Allison Parry-Gurak, director of Residential Services; Barb Bowman, counselor; Jocelynn Congdon, grant/data coordinator; Judy Pratt, counselor; Lauren Swimline, intake coordinator; Nicole Anderson, counselor; Sheila Rolle Smith, case manager; Trisha Allen, Reentry Project director.

UConnectCare promotes Batavian Kabel to director of Grant Management post

By Press Release
Amy Kabel

Press release:

During her 4 ½ years as an employee at UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse), Amy Kabel has worn several hats, and she has worn them well.

Hired as a peer recovery advocate in April 2019 to assist those in recovery from substance use disorder, the Batavia resident has been promoted to the director of Grant Management position – a job that is vital to the nonprofit agency’s mission to provide a wide variety of services to those in need.

“We’re excited to announce that Amy has accepted the position of director of Grant Management,” said UConnectCare Chief Executive Officer John Bennett. “Amy has excelled at every level, and the skills she has gained will make her a great addition to the management team.”

Kabel (photo at right) served as the lead peer at The Recovery Station on Clinton Street Road, a supervisory role, before accepting coordinator positions for The Recovery Station, which is under the auspices of the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports and for the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Rural Communities Opioid Response Program.

In 2021, she was promoted to assistant director of Grants & Projects, working closely with Rosalie Mangino-Crandall, the former director of Project Innovations and Expansion.

As director of Grant Management, she will oversee a team of about 10 grant-funded employees while searching for and writing grants to fund key programs.

“Fortunately, I was able to learn from Rosalie, who was a fantastic mentor,” Kabel said. “She set a high bar, and I will do my best to keep these programs going.”

Before joining UConnectCare, Kabel was employed as an aide on the surgical floor at United Memorial Medical Center and at Hope Haven, the hospital’s inpatient agency for those struggling with substance use.

She earned an associate’s degree from Genesee Community College and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Community & Health Services from SUNY Empire State College. Kabel has a daughter, Madison, a social worker in the Buffalo area.

Promotion of Allen to project director reflects success of UConnectCare's Reentry Program

By Mike Pettinella
Trisha Allen

In Trisha Allen’s eyes, the need to help men and women returning to the community after being incarcerated far outweighs her job title at UConnectCare’s Reentry Program.

The Lyndonville resident recently was promoted by the agency, formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, for her efforts over the past 2 ½ years to develop and solidify the program that provides case management and peer recovery services to those who have been in jail or prison.

A five-year employee at UConnectCare, Allen (photo at right) has moved up from coordinator to project director -- with expanded duties that include overseeing seven full- and part-time employees and communicating directly with the officer of the Offender Reentry Program grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that funds the local initiative.

Allen said the Reentry Program has helped numerous men and women get their lives back on track.

She said the men and women who utilized the services that are offered and “did the work” are the ones that have made a successful transition from incarceration.

“In the end, it’s a matter of ‘what you put into the program is what you get out of it,’” she said.

Chester Shivers, a key member of the UConnectCare Reentry Program team since 2020, said he can relate to what people are going through as he advanced through a reentry program at another location.

“It has helped me to learn patience and to make healthy decisions,” he said. “I take one day at a time and wish to share the same hope that was given to me to others.”

Currently, the program is serving more than 90 participants in the Genesee and Orleans counties, with some of those people living in transitional housing provided by UConnectCare.

The Reentry Program helps connect participants with the following services: substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, housing, food, clothing, employment and/or job training, childcare, transportation and medical care. Direct case management and housing services are not billed through insurance, enabling participants to avoid those expenses.

Initially, individuals with a history of substance use who were sentenced to jail for a minimum of three months were eligible to qualify for the program. Today, eligibility is not as restrictive.

“We’re now able to serve people that were sentenced to a minimum of 30 days and have served that sentence,” Allen said. “Government is noticing … especially with changes in bail laws that people are not incarcerated as much and for shorter durations.”

Allen said she would like to see the program expanded to include those who haven’t been formally sentenced but served some time through pre-trial release or have had their case diverted through Genesee Justice or Drug Court. She said she also is an advocate for Medication Assisted Treatment for those in recovery.

Since May of this year, Allen has served as the jail counselor in both counties. She said that role ties in nicely with her job with the Reentry Program.

“We’ve been able to get nine or 10 new clients from the counseling sessions,” she said, adding that she visits the Genesee County Jail on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Orleans County Jail on Wednesdays and Fridays.

A graduate of Genesee Community College, where she received an associate degree in Human Services, Allen also has certification as a peer advocate and is working toward become a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor.

For more information about the Reentry Program, send an email to reentry@uconnectcare.org or call 585-813-6570.

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

Reflective and disappointed: CEO extends invitation to 'come down to visit us'

By Joanne Beck
John Bennett
August 2023 File Photo of John Bennett
Photo by Mike Pettinella

After spending 40 years in a career involved with people dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, John Bennett believes he has come to know those people fairly well. And after all is said and done, no matter their struggles and perceived defects, “they’re just people,” he says.

Bennett, the chief executive officer for UConnectCare, formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, or GCASA, is taking some time to collect his thoughts and plans for the agency after his request for funding was turned down Wednesday by four Genesee County legislators. 

The Batavian needs to clarify two points that may have gotten lost in the fray of comments involved in the potential deal. One is that the $100,000 request was not directly from the county’s coffers or taxpayers. The money would have come from settlement funds that were the result of an opioid-related lawsuit that Genesee County was part of, along with several other counties. 

There is some $463,000 available, and a portion of the money has a restricted use that must go toward opioid-related purposes. For example, some of the opioid funding went for monitoring of wastewater to track what types of drugs are being used in Genesee County.

The second point is that while the assessed value of the motel has been cited as $293,000, the property has also been listed as for sale on LoopNet. That listing does not include an asking price; however, Realtor.com gives the estimated market value of the property as $970,343. That is how the purchase price landed at $800,000.

Aside from those two financial considerations, the legislators did not want the deal for other reasons, and those comments are what hit the hardest for Bennett, he said. 

The idea was to have a place for transitional housing to serve people in need of safe temporary housing, and it was discussed by a committee of representatives from the county, GCASA, and mental health that all seemed to agree it was a good idea, he said.

“I will say that the legislators, this group, sent a message about how they feel about people with addiction and recovery. And it's disappointing to me because I've worked 25 years in this community. And, you know, part of my mission is to help reduce the stigma of people with addiction, and I feel that maybe I haven't done such a good job,” Bennett said. “If that's the way some people in the legislature still feel about having us in the community and the people we serve … I'm trying to take a look at all that right now.”

He invites the legislators, and anyone who is interested, to take a tour of the facilities at the newly named UConnectCare, and talk to people there to learn more about what they do. 

Bennett is concerned about how people with addictions are portrayed just because they may struggle and relapse — even if it’s multiple times. Many people have such a story in their own families, including Bennett, he said. His grandfather, whom he was named after, “drank himself to death,” dying the year Bennett was born as a young man in his 50s. 

“And my mother always told me stories about what a kind man he was, that he’d give you the shirt off his back, but he had a drinking problem, and then in her infinite wisdom named me after him,” Bennett said. "I grew up going to Al-Anon meetings. And then my uncle, who was a prominent regional director for Mutual of Omaha, was also an alcoholic.”

The point being that, yes, good people can struggle with substances, he said. 

He also takes issue with any insinuation that his agency is a drain on the county. GCASA has gotten $35,000 from Genesee County in its yearly allotment. 

“We’re very appreciative of that, but that’s all we get in a $12 million budget,” he said. “So we’re not a drain on this county at all. In fact, we bring a lot of business. And the building that I sit in, we bought the building at auction. It was abandoned and dilapidated. It was empty for like 10 years. And nobody was paying taxes on it. That’s why we ended up buying it at auction,” he said.

The agency helps to boost the local economy by hiring local contractors for that work, and the 76 percent of its 200-person staff that lives and works in Genesee and Orleans counties, he said. 

“You can come come down to visit us. If you really serve in the community, come down and take a tour of our buildings, meet my staff, and meet some of the people that we service. They'll be willing to talk to you. But don't step up in public and say things that you don't really know anything about. That's my message,” he said. “Some people are there at the worst. They're down and out, and they're at the worst point of their life, and they need help. And, you know, you have to be willing to work for those people, too. So, yeah, I'm disappointed. I'm okay with making a decision not to give the money. I mean, that's not really the issue. The issue was how it was managed, the things that were said.”

Prior coverage:

In rare move, county legislators vote no to $100K request for motel purchase

By Joanne Beck

In less than a minute Wednesday, four Genesee County legislators did something that is rarely done during a committee meeting, likely ending the current plans of UConnectCare to purchase property on the outskirts of the county and convert it to transitional housing.

The legislators, led by Gary Maha, voted no to support UConnectCare CEO John Bennett’s request for $100,000 to purchase The Attican motel on Route 98.

Bennett’s agency was prepared to offer $800,000 for the property.

Gary Maha
Genesee County Legislator Gary Maha
Photo from county website

“I'm concerned with regards to this resolution. One is the assessment -- (the assistant county treasurer) checked on that for real property tax purposes. His property is assessed at $293,000. And yet the purchase price was three times as much as the assessment. Even with the adjustments, it's going to be assessed around $300,000. I have a concern with that,” Maha said during the Ways & Means session at the old County Courthouse. “And I know several residents in the area are concerned about the clientele presiding in that hotel, there’s children living in that area that back up the motel, and there’s an elementary school not too far down the road from that location, so I’m going to vote no to this resolution.”

Bennett had made the pitch during Monday’s Human Services meeting, and that committee passed along the resolution to Wednesday’s Ways & Means Committee for further consideration after Legislator Marianne Clattenburg spoke against the idea.

Among her concerns were the purchase offer of $800,000 for a property that was said on Monday to be assessed for $297,000, and would become nonprofit real estate to be taken off the tax rolls. She also questioned the value of the project and plan to turn yet another building into housing for people struggling with addiction, she said. 

UConnectCare, formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, has other residential sites, and the agency doesn't seem to be gaining any ground with long-term successes, she said. 

While the majority of these resolutions typically get a yes from every legislator sitting on a committee before it goes to the full county Legislature for a final vote, this one was stopped in its tracks. 

Fellow committee members, legislators Gregg Torrey, John Deleo and Committee Chairwoman Clattenburg also voted no to the resolution for the same reasons as those stated by Maha, they said. That halts it from going any further. 

On Monday, Bennett said that if he did not receive the $100,000, that he would not pursue the plan to buy the building. He has $700,000 in funding now but wanted to get the county’s support, he said. 

Earlier Wednesday, Attica Village Mayor Nathan Montford said that he had felt a bit “blindsided” by the prospective motel purchase since he learned of it via social media and not directly from GCASA officials, he said.

“I wish I had found out from them first,” he said to The Batavian. 

 The Attican “gets utilized for a multitude of events,”  he said.  “I’d like to see it kept the way it is.” 

He didn’t want to comment too much before discussing the matter with Bennett, who apparently reached out to Montford after the initial meeting with county officials went public. Montford believed that they would be talking on Thursday afternoon. 

“There was some backlash,” Montford said, from both residents and businesses bringing forth more questions about the venture. “I have more questions. It’s worrisome when something like this gets brought to  us.”

One concern he has is that “I don’t believe our village has the resources” for the proposed planned use of the motel, he said.

Of course, with the resolution defeated, it all may be moot now. The Batavian reached out to Bennett after the meeting for response to Wednesday’s vote and asked about his plans for transitional housing and/or other types of programs and services. 

Christen Foley promoted to project director of WNY Prevention Resource Center

By Mike Pettinella
Christen Foley

UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) has promoted Christen Foley to the position of project director of the Western New York Prevention Resource Center.

The Batavia resident will oversee the implementation of training programs and technical assistance to community drug and alcohol prevention coalitions in the eight-county region. Foley, (photo at right), with the support of two community development specialists, is responsible for collaborating with the prevention providers, coalitions and community groups that make up the WNYPRC.

One of six prevention resource centers in New York State, the WNYPRC is based at UConnectCare’s offices on Clinton Street Road in Batavia and is an initiative of the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports.

Its focus is on engaging community stakeholders in the development of new coalitions and supporting established community coalitions as they work to reduce the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Additionally, the center provides technical assistance, training and support to communities and coalition partners.

“The WNYPRC encourages the use of the Strategic Prevention Framework, which is a public health, outcome-based prevention approach,” Foley said. “This seven-phase approach helps coalitions assess the community’s needs and address them accordingly. The key is to respond appropriately by utilizing the data that reveals each community’s specific needs.”

Foley was hired by UConnectCare in 2019 to lead the Genesee-Orleans-Wyoming Opioid Task Force. Her efforts helped expand the task force to various segments of the community and resulted in it receiving the 2020 Community Star from the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health. The award is given annual to only one rural entity in New York State.

Shannon Ford, services director of Communications and Development and director of Prevention at UConnectCare, said Foley is “a natural fit” for the project director role.

“Christen was able to refine her community engagement skills with the GOW Opioid Task Force and will now be able to help community coalitions across the region,” Ford said. “Most people don’t understand the science behind substance use disorder prevention and coalition activities. Christen and her team will help community coalitions effectively reduce underage substance use using evidence based approaches.”

Foley has been attending trainings and workshops since her appointment to the new position in June, including the Foundation in Prevention Ethics Training and the CADCA Mid-Year Training Institute, the latter a four-day conference in Dallas.

“As a result, I will now be certified to host and facilitate the six-hour, in-person Foundations in Prevention Ethics course for our prevention providers, coalitions and community partners,” she said, adding that she also is working towards becoming a certified Substance Abuse Prevention Skill Training Trainer.

She said she plans to host an ethics training next year and will be working on establishing coalitions in Genesee and Orleans counties.\

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

GCASA's new name signifies capacity to 'connect' public to variety of services

By Press Release
UConnectCare

Press release:

As the result of a remarkable expansion of services over the years, the leadership at Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse has decided to give the nonprofit agency a new name that reflects its mission of “person-centered care.”

Effective Sept. 18, GCASA will be known as UConnectCare Behavioral Health Services – a title, according to Chief Executive Officer John Bennett, “that captures the full scope of what we do and who we are, providing a full spectrum of substance use disorder services, while also supporting the mental and physical health needs of the people we serve.”

“Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse is a mouthful to say, and it’s old and uses outdated and stigmatizing language,” Bennett said. “While the acronym GCASA is well known and has served us well, we are long overdue for a rebrand.”

Serving both counties for 48 years, GCASA – now UConnectCare – offers a continuum of care, including prevention, treatment, recovery, residential and detox services as well as an in-house employee assistance program. The staff has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years to more than 150.

“We believe UConnectCare will be a brand that can grow with us and will embody our philosophy that the path to recovery begins with U,” Bennett added.

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