“Show me a disco move you remember,” Alan Alper said. As the screen on the wall flashed with sequined disco balls, the sound of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” echoed throughout the room as Alper brazenly disco danced around the room. “Show me your moves!” Alper yelled. Alper and the crowd watching his performance were individuals recovering from mental health issues in a very 21st century—and very lively—rehabilitation center. The group danced the Electric Slide at a disco class within COMHAR, the Community Organization for Mental Health and Retardation on 2055 E. Allegheny Ave. COMHAR, which was established in 1976, is a nonprofit community integrated recovery center, or CIRC, that works to rehabilitate individuals suffering from mental health issues and/or substance abuse.
Many residents of the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods are plagued by both mental illness and substance abuse, often caused by a combination of low literacy rates, poverty and traumatic events. According to city-data.com, there are almost 500 people in Fairhill who are in mental hospitals or wards, and around 300 are in halfway houses for drug and/or alcohol abuse. This is compounded by a lack of education, for according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 28 percent of adults with less than a high school education have a significantly higher percentage of physical, mental or emotional problems than adults with a high school degree and some college, for whom the rate is around 20 percent. COMHAR offers a range of programs to decrease the high number of Fairhill and Kensington residents suffering from mental illness and substance abuse issues.
The Allegheny location offers the HOPE program, which stands for Helping Opportunities for People’s Empowerment, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day. There are multiple programs offered under the HOPE umbrella, including the Friendship Support Group, or FSG, for adults 55 and up and the Effective Living Program, or ELP, for adults through age 55. Both are day programs located on COMHAR’s second floor that aid individuals seeking recovery for mental health issues.
According to Congreso, Latino adults, who comprise the majority of Fairhill’s population, have the highest percentage of mental health diagnoses in Philadelphia at 22.7 percent. COMHAR therefore offers HOPE Latino, which helps rehabilitate Latinos in Fairhill and the surrounding communities who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses. Additionally, COMHAR offers a community residential program with around-the-clock staffing for individuals with mental health issues, as well as the Clubhouse on 3147 Emerald St., a psychosocial vocational program that helps people gain independent employment. The fourth floor also houses HOPE Beginnings, a rehabilitation program for people suffering from co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues.
Ellie Litcofsky, the program coordinator of FSG and ELP, sees a wide range of individuals come through COMHAR’s doors on a daily basis. Most individuals’ mental disorders were precipitated by a traumatic event. “People come in with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mood disorders…It runs the gamut from things that are a little bit more mild to things that are more severe,” Litcofsky said.
The program, which is available to anyone over age 18, is created around members’ requests. “The program that we run is very driven by the members,” Litcofsky said. “We work on identifying what they want their life to be, what’s missing from their life and how we can help them get it back. Whether it’s going back to work or reconnecting with family (…) it’s their goals we work on and help them accomplish.”
COMHAR differs from other programs because it transformed in 2007 to cover both psychiatric rehabilitation and case management. Hence, instead of focusing on purely medical remedies, the programs focus on group therapy and hands-on recovery activities. “We have a program schedule that includes educational, therapeutic and skills building groups,” Litcofsky said. “We ask the members what they want to see on the schedule so everybody has the opportunity to go to whatever group they choose.”
FSG also offers peer and staff counseling as well as community volunteerism, such as creating baskets for the needy during the holidays. FSG also offers community activities on an individual basis, such as helping newly independent members learn how to food shop on a budget.
Michael J. Davis, 29, originally from Georgia, came to COMHAR after experiencing worsening mental problems due to family issues. Davis lauded COMHAR’s recovery activites. “We go to groups, watch movies, and we have parties and stuff,” Davis said. “I like the movies the most. The programs help me. It gets me out of the house.”
Annie Omolo, who has worked at COMHAR for 25 years, is the recovery counselor and employment specialist for HOPE. Omolo stresses the supportive philosophy and environment provided at COMHAR. “We have plenty of success stories,” Omolo said. “Progress comes in many ways. Just because somebody is still here doesn’t mean they haven’t made progress. If you just come to the program with a clean shirt one day out of the month, that’s progress.”
Gary Schoenberg, the director of HOPE’s continuing care services, oversees FSG as well as the Beginnings program. “Part of psychiatric rehabilitation is focused on helping people learn skills necessary to become more functional in their lives,” Schoenberg said. “The skills might be illness management, learning to deal with anger, job readiness, parenting classes once a week (…). We also have someone do movement and we have a music therapist, so we have a lot of creative arts aspects to the program. It’s very holistic.”
The program also allows individuals to be more actively involved than most rehab centers. “We try to urge members of the community to become empowered in decision making. We have a member council. They get voted on it by the community, and so members are involved in planning activities,” Schoenberg said. The program also emphasizes peer support, in which the members train to become peer helpers and role models.
Susan Schwarz, a HOPE program director who also helps run the Beginnings program, led a cathartic exercise in which members shook a parachute to the eerie sounds of the band Evanescence. Schwarz believes COMHAR’s unconventional approach to recovery aids members more than some other programs. “For so long, people stop dreaming. People have trampled on them, and said that they wouldn’t become something,” Schwarz said. “So one of the things we do here is help people learn how to identify who they are as an individual, not their illness. When you use a medical model, you’re always a patient, you’re always sick. So this has been a real change in philosophy, and I think that has really helped.”
There is also solid proof of the programs’ success. The HOPE program hosts a graduation every year in which people who have made significant progress can leave the program to achieve their goals. Graduate percentages have risen, with 20 to 30 percent graduating each year. “This past September we had 19 people graduate,” Schoenberg said. “Some people got jobs, some went back to school, and we even have somebody who is taking pre-law classes. It’s really exciting to see people move on.”
Schwarz concurred. “One gentleman had a specific goal to return to baking, and he got a job doing that,” Schwarz said. “That was his goal and he fulfilled it. Being a part of society means a lot to everybody, and they’re trying to get there again.”
Alan Alper, an 12 year veteran of FSG, came to COMHAR due to chronic breakdowns precipitated by a death in the family. He praises the center in helping aid his recovery. “It helps incredibly. My whole mind is clear, my inner self…I can think straight now. No more breakdowns,” Alper laughed.
Alper, who aims to eventually work at Jefferson Hospital, is now determined and optimistic. “I’ve come a long way,” Alper said. “I learned to take care of myself more. Rehab… it works.”