“Good morning, SERV Behavioral Health System. This is Helena. May I help you?”
The cheery greeting comes through loud and clear over the phone as Helena P. readies to direct the incoming call to the Progressive Achievement Center in Ewing, N.J.
As SERV Achievement Center’s part-time receptionist for the Progressive Achievement Center (PAC), Helena, 26, keeps post and greets visitors at the nonprofit organization that has employed her since last December for two 5-hour days a week.
Her familiarity with the Center is apparent as she moves from various offices to the PAC Thrift Store and back to her front-office desk. Indeed, the Center is her second home not only because she has been an employee for the past few months, but also because she has been a SERV consumer since June 2007.
Helena has a developmental disability as a result of being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She has been diagnosed with a seizure disorder, impulse control disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has a history of self-injurious behavior. Most of her symptoms are now well managed with the help of medications.
She entered SERV Achievement Centers’ Supervised Apartment Program after a long history of residing in behavioral group homes as an adolescent and many psychiatric hospitals as an adult. She now has found a long-term home at SERV Achievement Centers, where she gets the individualized training, support and skills necessary for living and working successfully in the community.
In this environment, the single mom has found a surrogate family for herself and her 11-month-old daughter, MaryAnna, among the staff at SERV. From SERV’s president/CEO, whom Helena affectionately calls Uncle Gary (Van Nostrand) in front of her daughter; to her Residential Coordinator Deb Klemmer who was her birthing coach; to her Direct Support Professional Tahira McCoy, the baby’s godmother, Helena receives the same kind of “family” support from SERV that was provided her by the foster family that took her in when she was 4.
Born to a mother in Wisconsin who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, Helena was taken in by an uncle for a few years until a foster home was found for her in Milwaukee when she was 4½. Pat and Bob, who had two children of their own, took Helena into their family and aimed to guide her in the right direction. After Helena started to display aggressive behavior with her classmates and teachers, ran away from home, and got into numerous scrapes in the community, she entered St. Rose for Girls Group Home at the age of 8.
“I was angry,” says Helena, when she recalls how she was let down by her biological mother, who wrote her letters every month and included a $20 bill. “I took the money, but ripped up the letters and didn’t even read them.” Her voice softens when she adds,
“My foster mom turned me into somebody better.”
When Pat and Bob moved to New Jersey, Helena transferred to CPC Behavioral Health Care for girls in Morganville, where she stayed until the age of 21. There, she regularly saw a psychiatrist and therapist and blossomed as an athlete in Special Olympics events. She has earned 50 gold, silver and bronze medals plus a few ribbons in track & field, bowling, volleyball and skiing.
While living at CPC, Helena graduated from High Point High School and Freehold Vocational School where she learned floral design. She has used her trade school skills to create floral table centerpieces that are for sale at the Racks By PAC thrift store at SERV’s Progressive Achievement Center in Ewing. Money raised there helps support day outings for consumers.
Helena spent four years in the Supervised Apartment Program operated by another agency in Middlesex County before she decided it was “time for a change.” The New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities contacted several agencies and SERV Behavioral Health System responded.
In June 2007, Helena joined SERV’s Supervised Apartment Program and moved into a unit in Plainsboro, Middlesex County. In her new home, she was supported by staff 24/7 as she honed her daily living skills and took responsibility for her medical treatment. To strengthen her vocational skills, she immediately started attending the PAC day program in Ewing where she learned to file, stuff envelopes and shred paper.
It was in October 2008 when Helena found out she was pregnant after coming back from Massachusetts, where she met up with a friend after attending a funeral for a family friend. For a brief time, the father moved in with Helena and attended birthing classes with her. However, he became short-tempered and verbally and emotionally abusive toward her. SERV staff repeatedly made attempts to help them interact with each other in a more healthy way, but finally had to ask him to leave the apartment.
Supporting a mother through prenatal care, child birth and child rearing is a first for SERV Achievement Centers.
“This experience with motherhood has taught Helena responsibility. She has matured emotionally by leaps and bounds since delivering the baby,” says Deb Klemmer, her Residential Coordinator who acted as birthing coach. “She has blossomed into someone who has been able to seek out her own resources (such as finding a pediatrician, enrolling in WIC, getting the baby a Social Security number and opening a baby’s bank account). She never asked us to do that for her.”
Through Internet research, Helena has connected with support agencies such as Middlesex County Social Services, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Salvation Army to receive items such as baby formula, a high chair and car seat.
“Being a mom has improved her skills in all areas,” Klemmer says. “She has become a better housekeeper so that she can provide a safe place for her child. She made a medical chart for MaryAnna, just like SERV’s regulations, because she knows the importance of documentation.”
Many of SERV’s employees at the Administrative office are familiar with Helena and enjoy her visits with doe-eyed MaryAnna. There are a special few who have a familial place in Helena and MaryAnna’s lives. Klemmer beams when she talks about the baby’s birth. She can rattle off the date (May 10, 2008), labor time (14-15 hours), and birth weight and length (5 lbs., 2 oz.; 18 inches) as if the statistics were her own child’s. “I was so honored that she asked me to be there.”
McCoy is like a “second mother” to MaryAnna, according to Helena, who asked her to be co-godmother for the baby’s christening, which took place March 15 at the United Presbyterian Church in Plainfield. (Helena’s foster parents Pat and Bob were there for the christening and presented MaryAnna with a handmade, white satin and lace christening gown.) McCoy’s 2-year-old twins often play with the baby and enjoy giving her kisses and hugs. Helena thinks of them as her niece and nephew.
And there’s Gary Van Nostrand, SERV’s president/CEO, who will some day be called Uncle Gary when MaryAnna begins to speak. “When Helena visits the office, she keeps me up-to-date on MaryAnna’s progress, such as when she started on solid food or began to crawl,” he says.
Helena acknowledges that raising a baby has many challenges, and that she is able to do so with the help of SERV’s support 24 hours a day, one day at a time. “I am raising not just myself, but I am also raising my daughter. I have to be responsible for my life, and then for her. I know that everything I do will say something to her.”
“(Motherhood) has shown us a side of Helena that we did not know could have existed,” Klemmer says. “We (at SERV) are very proud of her. I hope we get to stay in her life for a long time.”