Brownie troop donates cookies to SERV’s healthcare heroes

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Although Brownie Troop 60284 had to suspend their in-person activities and events to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they still wanted to help their community and thank the heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic.

So, last week, the troop donated more than 60 boxes of Girl Scout cookies to the essential workers of SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. in Mercer County.

SERV Residential Program Manager Sara Gardiner, also Girl Scout Leader of Troop 60284, led the effort, along with her eight-year-old daughter Adrianna and Co-Leaders Tracy Edwards, Blythe Aguayo, and Susu Garcia.   

“Although SERV’s essential workers are in the healthcare community, behavioral health often gets overlooked,” said Gardiner. “As the Girl Scout Leader, I wanted to use this opportunity to thank SERV’s staff for their hard work and selfless efforts during the pandemic.

“I also wanted to teach the girls how it’s just as important to take care of our mental health as our physical health,” she added. "I shared with them the stories of SERV’s heroes on the frontlines and helped them recognize that you don’t need to be a doctor to save lives.”

Troop 60284 consists of 20 second graders, referred to as “Brownies,” according to Gardiner. While they function as an independent troop, they are also part of an expansive family troop of more than 100 girls of various ages.

Troop 60284 has worked hard to stay engaged and active in Girl Scouting during the pandemic. In addition to SERV, they’ve also made donations to a number of local EMS and fire departments. In previous years, the troop has donated to the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital.

After last week’s donation, Gardiner said she received an outpouring of gratitude from SERV employees.

In an email to Gardiner, Kelly Rufe, the Director of SERV Centers in Mercer County, wrote, “I want to sincerely thank you and your daughter’s entire Girl Scout Troop for thinking of SERV Mercer and donating cookies to the county. Given these difficult times, it is gestures like these that truly make our days brighter.”

The Girl Scouts’ mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. Clearly, the Brownies of Troop 60284 encompass these values, and SERV thanks them for thinking of our heroes during this uncertain time.

Consumers and staff thank PPE donors in Middlesex County

Consumers and staff in Middlesex County recently worked together to create an oversized thank-you card for Health Fair Natural Food Market in Little Silver, New Jersey.

In late-May, Health Fair Natural Food Market made a large donation of face masks to SERV. The owner of the food market sewed the masks herself, according to Dana Williams, Director of SERV Centers in Middlesex County.

“This card is to show our appreciation,” Williams said. “Even though she is busy with running her store, the owner of Health Fair took the time to make us some high-quality face masks. It was an extremely kind gesture.”

In addition to Health Fair Natural Food Market, SERV Centers in Middlesex County have received PPE donations from a local nurse and Masketeers—a volunteer group that has donated thousands of masks to healthcare organizations in New Jersey over the past few months. Staff members have mailed thank-you letters to these kind individuals, as well.

When asked about the how the pandemic has affected the moods of consumers, Williams said, “they’ve really been toughing it out…Of course, there has been restlessness from time to time, but for the most part, they have dealt with it well, and I’ve been impressed by their resiliency.”

Daily groups, arts and crafts, reading, playing chess, gardening, and exercising are some of the ways that consumers in Middlesex County have kept busy, according to Williams.

She added that they have several exciting events planned for this month, including a healthy cooking demonstration at the Jamesburg Group Home. “We’ll be teaching them how to make summer salads and smoothies while educating them on all the health benefits of the ingredients,” she said.

Elizabeth Group Home celebrates Memorial Day

This past Memorial Day marked the beginning of one of the strangest summers in our nation’s history.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all major events and large gatherings were canceled. Most stores, restaurants, and campgrounds remained closed. There were no parades, no concerts. No baseball games. No fireworks.

Yet, the consumers and staff at SERV’s Elizabeth Group Home were determined to make the most of Memorial Day by holding a cookout. This would allow them to commemorate the holiday together without jeopardizing their health and safety.

“I’m glad that in the midst of this chaos, the Elizabeth Group Home leadership and staff found time to celebrate Memorial Day with the residents,” said Bismark Ntow, Regional Director of SERV Achievement. “They were not required to celebrate the day, but they were thoughtful enough to organize a cookout. I appreciate such initiative and commitment.”

Residential Manager Tahesha McCray organized the event, along with Carmen Fernandez, the Assistant Director of the day program. DSP Bilha Ongiri, DSP Tony Kalu, and other staff members prepared the food.

The menu included hotdogs, cheeseburgers, ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese, tuna salad, deviled eggs, salsa dip, Italian sausages, and chili.

“The pandemic didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves,” Tahesha McCray said. “The sun was shining, and after months of being cooped-up, it was important for the consumers to venture outside and socialize while using the proper precautions.”

According to McCray, the consumers and staff at the Elizabeth Group Home enjoyed the Memorial Day celebration so much that they’re already planning another cookout.

“It’s difficult, but we have to make the best of this situation,” she added. “Even amid all this awfulness, we are making memories and taking advantage of our time together.”  

SERV employee speaks out against police brutality and systemic racism

“No justice, no peace!”

“Silence is violence!”

“Black lives matter!”

Over the past few weeks, these chants have reverberated across the nation, as droves of people emerge from self-isolation and flood the streets each day to protest the senseless killing of George Floyd—an unarmed, African-American man who died beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. 

Protesters are not only calling for the end of police brutality, but also for real change when it comes to broader racial injustices African-Americans experience daily.

Among those advocating for change is Francis Akintola, a 28-year-old Residential Counselor at SERV. 

Born in Ibaban, Nigeria, Akintola immigrated to the United States in 1999, after his father won a Visa Lottery. Since then, he said, he has experienced first-hand “the rash of police brutality and systemic racism in our society.”

“It’s no secret that the Black community is suffering,” Akintola said. “It’s sad that it took the death of George Floyd for this protest to happen, but I’m glad people are finally pushing for change and having these difficult conversations.

“While we might not like to discuss racism, it’s a real issue that is affecting millions, and I’m encouraged to see so many people—people from all races and backgrounds—come together in solidarity to support this cause,” he added. 

On Thursday, June 4, SERV released a statement against racism, violence, inequality, and discrimination. In it, the organization’s CEO, Regina Widdows, wrote, “We must remain committed to our mission and practice our core values daily. 

“We must also continue to foster an environment that embraces diversity, growth, and cultural sensitivity—an environment where all people are seen and all voices are heard. Our identity is rooted in empowering everyone, and right now, it’s incumbent upon us to promote and support systemic change.”

Widdows concluded her statement with a call-to-action. “The path forward begins with courageous conversation and unity,” she wrote. “With that in mind, I ask that you reach out to your team members this week to see how they are doing. I ask that you embrace all opinions, not just those that align with your own. I ask that you show compassion for those who are scared, suffering, or navigating unseen circumstances. And finally, I ask that you join me and everyone on the leadership team in continuing to advocate for real, lasting change.”

Widdows’ statement resonated with Akintola, who said, “Right now, many people are struggling to find a way to voice their frustrations, and it’s uplifting to know we have the support of leadership. Her words truly were inspiring.”

Akintola joined the SERV Team in December of 2019. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from William Paterson University. 

In addition to his work at SERV, Akintola is a student at Rutgers University, where he is working towards a Master’s Degree in Social Work and serves as Co-Chair of the school’s Student Government.

There are several different ways we can all protest peacefully, according to Akintola, who intends to continue using his voice and influence to shed light on the issues affecting people of color.

“Whether it’s marching down the street, signing petitions, or posting on social media, there a number of ways we can all make an impact without resorting to rioting and violence,” he said. “We should all do our part to spread awareness, but we need to do it peacefully.”  

Akintola and his classmates are planning to hold a social awareness event this summer, wherein they will discuss how to end systemic racism and prevent police brutality in New Jersey. During the event, they will offer local police officers a chance to express their opinions, as well.