Reprint of FFC article by Rose Brennan

BRIDGEPORT—Mental health and wellness aren’t the taboo subjects that they once were. But with a growing awareness comes a growing need for services, and sometimes seeking those services can be daunting.

However, Foundations in Faith seeks to provide the necessary connections between those services and the people in the pews that need them.

The foundation invited representatives from seven parishes in greater Bridgeport for a “lunch and learn” at the Thomas Merton Family Center on March 5. The gathering brought together the faith communities and two healthcare providers—Southwest Community Health Center and Sage Healthcare.

According to Kelly Weldon, Foundations in Faith’s director, when she had previously asked the pastors about the most pressing needs facing their communities, there was a common theme.

“The unanimous response was, ‘we are quite concerned about the mental health and the wellbeing of our adolescents, and that is impacting the entire family unit,’” she said. “So as a social worker through education, I started to think and say … these priests and the people that they work with need resources. They need to know what the resources are in Bridgeport that can specifically address the issues that their parishioners are dealing with.”

But, Weldon said, it was also important to ensure the pastors and parish staff took care of their own needs. As such, the foundation provided a healthy lunch from Chef Lisa Parrelli of Eat Well Be Well. Additionally, Weldon announced two mini grants the foundation awarded. The first was for a future nutritious cooking class taught by Chef Lisa for the pastors at the Merton Center, while the second would be for a randomly selected parish to have another cooking class for their pastor and youth group.

“We’re going to be looking at not only wellness for the adolescents and the parishioners, but wellness for ourselves,” Weldon said. “Because if we’re concerned and caregivers in some ways, we have to take care of ourselves.”

One of the healthcare providers Weldon invited to connect with the parishes was Southwest Community Health Center, which has 23 locations across Bridgeport—including on-site at the Merton Center. Christina Trani, Southwest’s chief behavioral health officer gave an overview focused on the center’s behavioral health programs.

Trani noted that there was an overarching theme of “serving the underserved” among the providers gathered at the Merton Center. And one community proving to be in great need of Southwest’s services is undocumented immigrants and their families, many of whom are underinsured or aren’t insured at all.

“We can see anybody … children ages five and up, their families, adults ages 18 and up, everyone— including the undocumented, underserved and underinsured,” she said. “We can either work with them to get them on benefits, or we can work with them on either a sliding fee scale or a full scholarship for our services if that’s what’s needed. There are no barriers that we can’t address. There are many barriers for our clients, but there’s nothing we can’t figure out.”

Trani said among many undocumented immigrants, trauma is something that needs to be addressed—especially among children and teenagers. Whether the trauma came before, during or after their arrival in the country, she said Southwest incorporates two behavioral health programs especially for school-aged children.

Which program is used largely depends on the age of the child. The Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools program—also known as CBITS—is primarily used among children in fifth through 12th grade. Meanwhile, Bounce Back, an adaptation to CBITS, is used for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The best part about these behavioral health programs is that children and families don’t have to go far to access these services. Seven of the 23 clinics Southwest operates are stationed in Bridgeport public schools: Bassick High, Blackham, Central High, Cesar A. Batalla, Curiale, Read and Roosevelt. The health center also plans to open an eighth school location at Geraldine Johnson School.

“We go where our patients are to make sure they have easy access to get in for the services they need,” said Mollie Melbourne, Southwest’s president and CEO. “We also have a mobile unit, so if they can’t come to us, we will literally go to them.”

On the other hand, Sage Healthcare is primarily affiliated with the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. Irene Bihl, Sage’s founder and administrator, said the center was brought to fruition by the need for physical and mental health care among the Mission’s clients.

Through Bihl and the work of other clinicians and volunteers, Sage provided over $1.2 million in free services to clients in 2023. And while she recognized the common work Sage and Southwest did in serving the underserved, she noted some important differences between the providers.

“We’re not a longitudinal practice,” Bihl said. “What we are is that particular call when somebody’s looking for help to answer the phone and make sure somebody’s there. So we get the call, we don’t ask any questions, they don’t have to pay for any services at all. And then if they do have insurance coverage and so forth, we place them with the right provider.”

Bihl also noted the Sage’s Christian roots, as well as her belief in providing care with respect. And she said one of the ways she sees that is in Sage’s foot care and podiatry program.

“People that are homeless, they don’t have always have good shoes. They’re on their feet all the time. Their socks are wet. So they can come in to have their foot washed and assessed,” she said. “We literally wash people’s feet.”