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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 [email protected] 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, 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

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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