Student Group Forges Alliance With Gilead
In the Spring of 2010, three Wesleyan students piloted a program to rekindle the connection between the University and the Wesleyan graduate-founded Gilead Community Services, Inc., a 40-year-old organization dedicated to providing mental health services for individuals and families.
The Wes-Gilead Alliance group was founded by Benjamin Fuchs ’11, Melanie Brady ’12, and Gregory McDonough ’12 with the help and advice of Health Professions Advisor Peggy Carey Best. Each student had their own impetus to get involved, and Carey-Best brought them together in a united cause.
“I was going to graduate early and then I decided that I hadn’t done enough here,” Brady said. “So I spoke to my advisor about working with mental illness in the community and she introduced me to Gilead. Since Wesleyan had lost touch over the years I thought it would be good to reconnect, so Ben and Greg and I started meeting up and drafting out plans and then we started meeting with Joseph Forscher, a director of Gilead with whom we are in direct contact and then we got the ball rolling.”
According to Fuchs, the group does not focus on the specific diagnoses attributed to Gilead clients.
“Our goal is to provide a mechanism for ‘non-treatment oriented’ peer support for individuals whose daily lives and social interactions are largely restricted to the community of Gilead employees and fellow clients, who are also focused on the ‘disorder’ identity of the individual,” he said. “As a group providing peer support, we believe that it is critical for us to be an outlet for everyday, normal interactions between peers that are not framed within a medical consciousness.”
Once volunteers commit, they undergo a simplified version of Gilead professional’s training.
“It’s preferable that students have had some interaction with people with mental illness on a help basis, whether it be in a hospital, at a camp for something specifically involved in mental illnesses or familial ties,” Brady said. “But they can work with us as long as they understand what they are about to encounter so it isn’t a shock to them, because that would interfere with the process.”
Fuchs added that the young program is still maturing and expanding.
“The nature of our training and orientation is still evolving as we grow and learn more about the ins and outs of working with Gilead clients,” Fuchs said. “That said, before getting paired up with a Gilead client, potential members meet several times, both with the rest of the group, and with our Gilead contact, to share experiences and to try to familiarize them as best we can with the nature of the program.”
Once students decide they want to be a part of the Wes-Gilead Connection, they undergo a screening process before being matched with a buddy. Students get some say in what kind of buddy they get paired with, for example which age group they prefer.
“The preference of the student is taken into consideration,” McDonough said. “Gilead has many different populations to offer, adults and adolescences alike, and our ideal is to form a meaningful bond and friendship. It is likely that students could keep in contact with their buddies for long after they are at Wesleyan.”
In the pilot run for the Wes-Gilead connection, students have discovered that there are more significant therapeutic gains if the buddy relationship has some degree of longevity, so the group tends to target underclassmen as recruits.
“We think a key factor of this success is if it is a long-term thing,” Brady said. “When we are in a selecting process, we target freshmen because we want them to be able to grow with their buddy. My buddy was telling me that she is happy now because previous mentors, she only had for at most two weeks, and that’s not a very recuperative process for her, or for anyone.”
Once a student has committed and been matched with a buddy, she or he should expect to devote at least three to four hours a week to the program.
“That includes bi-weekly meetings with our buddies and a brief phone call to check in every other week,” Fuchs said. “In addition, students meet once a week to discuss our recent experiences with our buddies.”
The bi-weekly meetings provide bonding time and seem to be at the heart of the program’s goal.
“Activities are really up to the buddy,” McDonough said. “They often revolve around getting food and talking—eating at Five Guys Burgers, Brew Bakers, Red and Black Café—however, we have also gone to the laser tag place on Main Street to play video games, and we have even gone to the CFA to play guitar and piano in the practice rooms.”
Through their pilot run, Brady, McDonough, and Fuchs are devising a manual of sorts that they hope will help guide future generations of Wesleyan students. Combined with a strong base of experienced and committed volunteers available each year to guide and introduce future generations to the Wes-Gilead alliance, the program promises to build strong roots within the Wesleyan community so that it can flourish in the years to come, long after the departure of the founding members.
“I don’t want the Wes-Gilead program to be something that falls apart once one of us leaves,” Brady said. “A big part of accepting people into the program is their passion because, especially when you’re dealing with other people, you can’t take a careless, lackadaisical approach. Ben, Greg, and I want this program to become the best it can be.”