A mother with green and blue hair sits on the lawn of Lake Shaftsbury State Park and feeds her baby a snack during the 2021 UCS staff appreciation picnic

Vermont Care Partners: Working together to build a unified Electronic Medical Records system

Vermont Care Partners is a network of sixteen agencies that provide mental health, substance use disorder, and developmental disability services and supports in every community in Vermont. VCP health care agencies are leaders in reshaping the ways that Vermonters stay well.  

This year, UCS and three other VCP member agencies cooperated to implement the use of a new Electronic Medical Records system (EMR), using Netsmart’s myAvatarTM 

“Our collaboration with Netsmart was unique considering the individual agencies involved required different implementation approaches but wanted the network to achieve the same scalability as well as the ability to establish common workflows,” noted Lorna Mattern, UCS’s Executive Director and VCP Board Secretary. “With a unified approach, we were able to facilitate comprehensive training and support as the Netsmart team ensured our move to a common platform was a success. Our agencies are now more in sync than ever before—in fact, the new platform allows us to share contracted clinical services among agencies, a huge benefit in this time of tremendous need and ongoing staff shortages.” 

The new system helps UCS and its partners more easily access and produce quality data to improve the clinical operations of the agencies, by providing metrics that inform workflow processes. This data will be reported to the State, ensuring the agencies are meeting the needs of Vermonters in a timely manner and as required. The data-driven EMR system is also integral in providing clinical summaries that help agency leadership gain insight into behavioral trends and align services to evolving needs. 

In addition to the long-term community benefits arising from the increased data, the new platform now allows UCS and its partnering agencies to share contracted clinical services, a true boon in this time of tremendous need and ongoing staff shortages. 

UCS helps Vermont’s migrant farmworkers

Doris Russell, Assistant Director of Mental Health with UCS, has been providing individual therapy sessions to undocumented dairy farmworkers throughout Vermont, many of whom are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. 

Through a contract with Vermont Care Partners and a University of Vermont Bridges to Health grant, Russell, who is bilingual, has been able to serve this cohort while reducing the language barrier to both getting and providing therapy.  

“We are providing a much-needed service to this community,” says Russell. “The farmworkers have come from Mexico, Guatemala and Uruguay, and are often isolated, living in fear of immigration authorities. 

30 hours of sessions provided
a person in therapy

Intensive Outpatient Program

There has been an increased demand for higher-intensity treatment for many who are working through addiction and mental health related issues. Our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers innovative, mindful-based sobriety for adults seeking help with substance use and co-occurring disorders that require more intense treatment than outpatient therapy but not the need for residential or inpatient care. The program is designed to address multiple factors concurrently, to help participants maintain and achieve sobriety and improve everyday functioning. The treatment includes evidence-based protocols such as Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), Collaborative Network Approach (CNA), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and several other healing modalities.   

30 individuals served and 1,444 hours of service provided
Andrea, mentor, and Jailynn, mentee.

Mentoring provides a vital link

Mentoring at UCS offers youth and their adult mentors opportunities to participate in new experiences and develop shared values. Research has long demonstrated that young people benefit from close, caring relationships with adults who serve as positive role models. At-risk youth with mentors have better attitudes toward school, increased social and emotional development, improved self-esteem, and are more likely to go to college than their non-mentored peers. 

Over the past year, UCS mentors met with their mentees in virtual space. Since summer, they have been able to resume in-person activities, thanks in large part to longtime sponsor The Bank of Bennington, who continued to support the program throughout the year, even after the cancellation of the Bowlathon, its major fundraising event. 

UCS mentor Andrea Luchini says of her mentee, “The mentoring program has not only been a great way for Jailynn to experience new things and have time away from her younger siblings, but she has also loved the social aspect…making friends outside of school has definitely been a highlight. I’ve watched her self-confidence blossom as she interacts with new people. It’s also amazing to watch her continually challenge herself—her inner strength and bravery are an example for us all!” 

38 years of mentoring at UCS. 86.5% of mentees in VT say mentoring made a difference in their lives*. Source: mentorvt.org
A group of young students. The movie poster for the Movie Angst: Rasing Awareness Around Anxiety. The Mental Health First Aid USA logo. The UCS Presents: Community Programming logo.

Reaching the Community

In this increasingly virtual world, we worked to reach our community with video-streamed education and resources. UCS presented films and video panel discussions with topics ranging from learning helpful interventions and tools for parents to help children who are stressed out, to learning mindfulness techniques to reduce stress—even a webinar on sleep. UCS’s experts worked to provide the platforms to reach the most people possible, so that the community could get needed help and grow in self-awareness. 

  • Angst: Raising Awareness about Anxiety, with panel discussion 
  • Practicing Mindfulness 
  • Our Kids Are More Stressed than Ever—What Can We Do About It? 
  • Wellness Moments self-help series 
  • Mental Health First Aid and Youth Mental Health First Aid 
Three UCS staff members holding plants they planted at a Worksite Wellness sponsored event

UCS fosters wellness for all

UCS values wellness that includes work/life balance for staff, free community programming, and empowering resources for all. Among our initiatives: 

  • Mental Health First Aid and Youth Mental Health First Aid workshops: We offer free courses to staff and the community, introducing participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health concerns and building understanding of their impact. The workshops teach how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. 
  • Worksite Wellness – We value our employees, and we understand that they, too, can struggle with taking care of themselves. In 2021 our worksite wellness program was the proud recipient of the Governor’s Excellence in Worksite Wellness Award for the eighth consecutive year. Activities included: 
    •  Self-care week 
    •  Employee Garden 
    •  Container gardening workshops 
    •  Onsite CSA with true Love Farm  
    •  Virtual workshops  “Staying Well in Weird Times”, “You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup”, and more 
  • Equine Therapy Workshops – UCS Clinicians are using this therapy to work successfully with clients, but anyone can benefit from the healing power of horses. UCS offered Equine Assisted Mental Health workshops to introduce the program all.  Community members experienced firsthand how people find solace in the heart of a horse.  
  • Support for Kinship Caregivers – Working with our community partners, EasterSealsTM of Vermont and Southwestern Vermont Health Care, we created a Kin Group designed to build the strength of the extended family and provide supports for kinship caregivers.  
This image shows the Spring Center on Gage Street

Together we made it happen: Spring Center

This year, our Early Childhood Services division opened the Spring Center, an 11,000 square foot addition to the Bennington Recreation Center. In addition to providing multi-use community space, this much-anticipated expansion increases access to Head Start and Early Head Start, and the lifelong benefits the programs help foster, for families throughout Bennington County. Partnering with the Town of Bennington and other local organizations, we were able to complete this innovative, multi-million-dollar project nearly on schedule, despite the ongoing health crisis. Together we are strengthening the community, one family at a time. 

Head Start is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

50% increase in infant/toddler capacity
UCS staff member petting a white horse

New equine-assisted therapy program expands healing and learning resources

This year, we partnered with Kanthaka of North Bennington, Inc. to provide equine-assisted therapy and learning opportunities to the community. 

UCS’s Equine Assisted Therapy program combines two well-regarded treatment protocols: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Psychotherapy (EMDR) and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). 

EMDR is an eight-phase program that helps children and adults address mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), substance abuse and addiction, and more. EAP is based on the precept that healthy relationships are the foundation of healing and recovery. Using EAP, individuals develop a rapport with horses, who are highly sensitive to human energy and actions. This relationship enhances building communication skills and bringing verbal and non-verbal communication into alignment for the individual. 

“I am calmer, I am not worrying a lot, I am leaving everything that bothers me behind … and I am right here with the horse.” —Equine Assisted Therapy client

People can benefit from the healing power of horses: Though horses are highly sensitive to human emotions, they do not process information the way humans do. Equine responses are based on the energy present in the moment. These qualities allow clients to work through their emotional struggles with direct immediate feedback and without being judged. 

Lori Vadakin, UCS’s Director of Outpatient and Substance Use Services, is certified as an EMDR EquiLateral™ Therapist. Down at the barn, she also provides clinical consultations to other clinicians who are learning EMDR. “The relationships that clients build with the horses are so meaningful and impactful,” says Vadakin. “To be able to offer this experience is invaluable. The horses provide the clients with a feeling of calm and a sense that they can cope with anything.” 

95 Session provided and 5 clinicians trained in EMDR
A portrait of Caroline Gauthier

Peer Groups offer strength in numbers

UCS peer groups are designed to offer support among people who share similar life experiences. Before COVID-19 struck, the peer groups were held in person, but health department restrictions on gathering sizes changed the paradigm.  

Annette and Greg, who are approved and funded by Vermont Psychiatric Survivors to lead peer groups, led a “Hot Topics” group from Annette’s living room, where the pair, socially distanced and equipped with several phones, had participants call in. Greg built the group’s roster of topics based on requests from the members, whom he calls the real group leaders. The popular “Sunshine Social Group” was relocated to Bennington’s Washington Elms, where the two led activities from the lawn for residents spaced across the porch. When winter saw a second surge of the virus, li-censing limits prevented nonresidents from entering the building. Instead, Annette encouraged a few of the residents to take charge of choosing movies, set up Bingo nights, and organize snacks.  

Jessie, a medical technician at the Elms, says, “Annette and Greg are absolutely wonderful, and all of the residents enjoy doing the crafts and games with them and look forward to the activities.”  

Washington Elms owner Melissa Greason, when asked about the peer support ef-forts, responded, “They’re wonderful!”  She shared that the residents—clients and non-clients alike—all struggle with the restrictions brought on by the public health crisis, commenting on how much UCS’s peer support groups have helped.  She cited Movie and Popcorn Night as a highlight, and said that all the residents enjoy the activities compiled by the peer facilitators. 

Other peer groups convene outside under the tent at our main office location. Nan-cy, who runs the “Living Well” group, provides peers with self-help education, presenting different topics weekly. One member reported that attending the group had renewed her sense of hopefulness and motivation. Meeting others who have lived through a debilitating experience with mental illness and made it to the other side is powerful.  

Peer leader Caroline offers “Friends and Fun,” a comforting gathering of peers that provides activities focused on helping members develop distraction and relaxation techniques. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) also provides support groups online. CRT Advisory Committee board member Andrea also sits on the NAMI board  and is active in their programs. Individually and as a group, our peer leaders bring a wealth of perspectives to fellow community members seeking support, as they share insights they have gained from their individual and collective experience with mental illness and mental health issues.

Young child with their head in their arms.

PUCK: an innovative approach for kids in crisis

Psychiatric Urgent Care for Kids (PUCK) is designed to meet the needs of children in crisis. UCS developed PUCK in collaboration with Southwestern Vermont Healthcare (SVHC) as a response to the increased use of the Emergency Room in dealing with kids in a mental health crisis. The program, the first of its kind in Vermont, diverts children experiencing serious behavioral or mental health crises away from the ER and into a child-oriented setting where they can receive appropriate care in a more conducive environment. 

282 families served by Family Emergency Services. 146 Kids received services through PUCK
Tina Fede inside Gatling House
James Buck / Seven Days

Providing care in the hardest of times

In March, one of our Developmental Services group homes was featured in a story by Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio (VPR) about the all-too-human cost of the pandemic.  

Suffering through a house-wide COVID-19 outbreak that began in December and hit residents and staff alike, house manager Tina Fede and her team worked countless hours caring for this tight-knit group of special-needs adults. They quarantined together when necessary, so that the clients in their care, many of whom are unable to fully comprehend the situation, could weather the crisis with as much care, comfort, and dignity as possible.  

We believe it is important to share this story, which is in equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming. We hope you will read more and listen to VPR’s excerpt below: 

2021

Online

Annual Report