From Festival Fun to Partnership: How One Night Turned into a Mental Health Initiative

From Festival Fun to Partnership:    How One Night Turned into a Mental Health Initiative

From Festival Fun to Partnership: How One Night Turned into a Mental Health Initiative

 

This is the story of our journey with David’s Refuge. 

I’ve always loved community festivals—the food, the music, the fun, and being outside with friends and family. In August 2018, my kids and I met up with my sister-in-law and nieces at Beard Park in Fayetteville for an evening of laughter, food trucks, and exotic animals. It was a dancing-barefoot-in-the-grass kind of late summer night. As my kids and their cousins cautiously touched a porcupine, I found myself in a friendly competition, outbidding a friend for coveted SU basketball tickets at the silent auction.

Little did I know that this simple, delightful evening would spark a transformative partnership. A few days after the event, I received a voicemail from Kate Houk, the Executive Director of David’s Refuge, congratulating me on winning the SU basketball tickets. She mentioned that the money raised by the silent auction would support David’s Refuge, a nonprofit organization. Curious, I googled David’s Refuge and learned that their mission is to provide respite, resources, and support to parents and guardians of children with special needs or life-threatening medical conditions.

As a mental health counselor, David’s Refuge’s mission resonated deeply with me. I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside numerous families facing the relentless emotional challenges of raising children with special needs. Each day, they grapple with the weight of their responsibilities, striving to provide the best possible care for their loved ones. I’ve witnessed the strain placed on couples as they teeter on the edge of collapse under the weight of overwhelming stress. Yet, amidst the exhaustion and turmoil, I’ve also seen them forge resilience and unity, finding strength in each other even in the darkest of times. I’ve had the honor of journeying with adolescents and young adults confronting terminal or life-threatening illnesses. Together, we’ve navigated the depths of complex emotions, tackling subjects as profound as identity, perceived burdens that they put on their parents, mortality, and the legacy they wish to leave behind.

Reflecting back, it seems Kate and I were destined to cross paths. When we connected on the phone, she shared that it was a goal for David’s Refuge to support the mental health needs of their families, and we immediately started brainstorming how we might join forces. Our first program supported the siblings in families with special needs kids, recognizing that they often go overlooked. After these “typical siblings” had an opportunity to jump and play at SkyZone, I facilitated siblings-only small group workshops, tailored specifically to their needs. As the siblings bonded over pizza and M&Ms, they experienced a safe space to share, connect, and support each other.

Our collaboration continued to grow over the next two years, as I partnered with David’s Refuge to create mental health and wellness focused social media videos, newsletter articles, and multiple small group workshops and presentations. We listened to what attendees said and created more programs based on their feedback. They expressed the need for more coping strategies, better access to mental health services, more opportunities to connect with other parents, and tools to reconnect as spouses. It was an honor to be a partner with Kate and the David’s Refuge team as we cultivated a culture of resilience and support, empowering families to navigate their challenges with self-compassion and strength.

In 2020, Kate approached me with a bold vision—to establish a grant-funded mental health counseling program for David’s Refuge families. The timing was perfect as I had just decided to expand my solo practice into a larger group of diverse mental health counselors, all with the vision of providing exceptional therapeutic support. I thought Kate’s idea was brilliant, and I dove in with unwavering excitement and determination to formalize and expand our partnership in a way that would undoubtedly impact the lives of the David’s Refuge families. While our wellness programming already received overwhelmingly positive feedback, this grant would enable us to deepen the impact and provide exactly what participants were expressing as ongoing needs.

With generous funding from the John Ben Snow Foundation and the Boeheim Foundation, our vision became a reality. In 2021, the inaugural year of the program, a significant number of individuals found solace, healing, and hope through individual and couples counseling, group sessions, and empowering workshops—all fully funded for David’s Refuge families. Now, in its fourth year, our partnership allows us to provide mental health counseling services to nearly 200 people per year. 

The CNYMHC team of licensed mental health counselors is equipped with knowledge of evidence-based treatment modalities, trauma-informed care, and relatable personal experience, and our counselors love working with David’s Refuge families. Lori McCrohan, LMHC, the leader of our support group for parents, is a special needs mom herself and was one of the initial members of the David’s Refuge Board when it began. She recalls Board conversations early on during which she advocated for mental health support for families, recognizing it as a pivotal and often neglected part of the caretaker’s wellness. Lori’s commitment to mental health and wellness guided her to a new career as a mental health counselor. When Lori reached out to me four years ago to apply for a master’s level internship, sharing her experience and connection with David’s Refuge, I was thrilled to have her join our team. It was a full-circle moment for Lori and further validation of the greater purpose and meaning of our work for me.

Since the inception of our partnership, we have expanded our offerings even more. Not only does the CNYMHC team offer individual, couples, and group counseling, but we also provide couples intensives, wellness workshops, and programming for typical siblings. We have created a multifaceted tapestry of support tailored to the unique needs of David’s Refuge families that have not only transformed lives but have also fortified the resilience of individuals facing extraordinary circumstances.

As I reflect on the evolution of our partnership with David’s Refuge, I’m reminded of the profound impact that collaboration rooted in compassion can yield. What started as a simple evening at a festival and a chance meeting, evolved into the creation of a multifaceted mental health initiative of healing, hope, and belonging for families in need. 

Many of us can connect over our passion to help others, and we need to figure out creative and out-of-the-box ways to do it. As we look to the future, we invite others to join us in this journey of empathy and transformation, one partnership at a time.

If you or your organization is interested in a partnership with the CNYMHC team, please contact me at drmelissa@cnymhc.com

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