Heidi and Darius
Isolation and the loneliness that accompanies it can be difficult for anyone, and is especially hard on veterans. At Bastion, we use the power of community to help solve issues and that can be a powerful cure for isolation and loneliness. Consider our newest resident, Darius Sampey.
Sampey enlisted in the Army when he was 17, and had to wait until he turned 18 before reporting to basic training. While he was in boot camp, however, he suffered a tragic incident and became profoundly deaf, ending his military career in less than 60 days.
“I had at least 45 years of service planned,” Sampey says.
He knew he would have to change his plans, so Sampey got cochlear implants and enrolled at Tulane University. While there, he volunteered in the university’s Rotaract club, which is part of a global nonprofit focused on young people providing service to their communities.
“That’s when I first became familiar with Bastion even before it was built,” Sampey says.
Sampey graduated from Tulane in 2016 with a double major in international relations and history. Completing college had been difficult, however, because he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory disease of the intestines. In a great deal of pain and rapidly losing weight, Sampey finished his senior year from a hospital bed.
To manage the Crohn’s, Sampey, who is on full disability, takes medications, which cause a great deal of fatigue and make it difficult to socialize. He felt isolated in his apartment--he did get a service dog, Heidi, who has been his constant companion for six years--when a friend mentioned Bastion to him.
“It’s not easy making friends these days, and I was looking for a new place,” Sampey says.
It’s been a little more than a month since Sampey moved in. He’s participated in some of the Headway events, including a field trip to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He’s made a close friend, Jason Causey, who also lives here, and Sampey mentions those everyday things that living in a close knit community can mean.
“Here [at Bastion] everything is more open, literally,” Sampey says. “Somedays the vets will hang out at the picnic tables, hanging with our dogs. It feels pretty good.”
“We all need it and deserve it. Not just people who have traumas. We’re all living in a pandemic in a violent world.” Lovella Calica, Bastion social worker
It might seem like an obvious statement, but considering the public stigma that still surrounds mental health, which can be even harsher for veterans, it’s worth repeating loudly and often. A recent Wounded Warrior Project survey found that 80 percent of wounded, ill, and injured veterans registered with WWP reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Likewise, many of Bastion’s veterans live with or have experienced PTSD, and/or other mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
So how does Bastion address these issues? Allison Tebbe, director of Bastion’s Headway Program, refers to the approach as “community as intervention.” As Tebbe explains, it refers to the powerful effect of having a close knit community like Bastion’s.
“When people feel there are others supporting them and in turn, they’re providing support, their mental health improves,” Tebbe says. “It’s those neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and things like sharing a meal.”
Headway, which is a community integration program for veterans living with TBI and other neurological conditions, is a great example of this. Participants engage in occupational therapy, art and music therapy, community outings, adaptive recreational activities, and more. Building these vocational, practical, and mental health skills is mostly done in a group setting with other veterans who understand what the other person is going through. Tebbe says that teaching mental health skills are a way for veterans to build an arsenal of tools and coping strategies.
“When they’re experiencing acute depression or anxiety, or are feeling triggered, they can pull something out of the toolkit,” Tebbe says. “If that doesn’t work, try another skill you’ve learned. It can be a long process, but we’ve seen it pay off over and over again with these veterans.”
Bastion’s social worker, Lovella Calica, also works to dispel the stigma by making group efforts more commonplace and natural. While Calica does offer traditional one-on-one counseling, she also leads a number of group sessions in mind/body skills such as TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises), writing workshops and exercise sessions.
“It’s really important for people to realize that there are many ways to feel good and it doesn’t always mean one-on-one therapy,” Calica says. “It can be yoga, TRE and many other group activities.”
When she invites a resident to participate, she makes it clear that it’s something everyone can and should do.
“I’ll say, ‘I’m working on my mental health through exercise and meditation, do you want to join me’?” Calica says.
Tebbe points out that the social isolation that many Americans now experience and is a major risk factor for suicide, is relatively new. For thousands and thousands and years, people were in greater contact, made stronger connections, and benefited from it. It really was about the power of community.
“We’re trying to recreate that model at Bastion,” Tebbe says. “It’s true community care.”
Bastion Social Worker Lovella Calica
In some ways, you could say Bastion’s social worker, Lovella Calica, had been preparing to work with our veterans and residents for more than a decade before landing at Bastion.
Calica arrived in New Orleans in the Summer of 2020 to oversee Bastion’s virtual wellness center, but she had begun working with veterans in 2004. In 2008, she founded Warrior Writers, a national writing program specifically for vets and their families.
“It’s about using art to facilitate healing, documentation, community building and expression,” Calica, who is also a writer, photographer and multimedia artist, says.
Healing and community building are two of the cornerstones of the Bastion mission, and Calica fit in immediately with the residents and staff. Before coming to Bastion, she enrolled in a master’s program in social work, which she completed in 2021, becoming Bastion’s onsite social worker. She says that her job entails a wide range of responsibilities, and is, as she puts, “different everyday, which I love.”
That makes sense considering that healing and community building can take many forms. On any given day, Calica could be doing a variety of meaningful actions including:
For Calica, all of the efforts represent what Bastion is all about, using community as an intervention tool and the value of connectivity. She says that Bastion residents are open to trying something new, and their conversations show Calica that as community member and staffer, her endeavors are valued and appreciated.
“In this work, changes aren’t always visible, but to hear about their changes and improvements is very valuable and rewarding to me,” Calica says.
Lately I've come to the conclusion that regardless of the situation, or crisis, or whatever is happening in the world, we are going to hold up our little corner of it. For the past five years that's exactly what we've been doing since we moved in our first resident at Bastion-- holding up our community, healing together, and building peace.
When I think of those we have lost along the way, I immediately think of what I could have done to save them, to keep them out of harm's way. But then I am also reminded that so many things lie beyond our control. What is in our purview, however, is our willingness to trust each other, or rebuild trust when it is broken... even if it means taking the first step.
In the spirit of those we have lost on the battlefield and at home, I am going to use my trust to restore peace and safety in my personal relationships, with my neighbors, with everyone I encounter in my work. It is mine to use and I will use it to take the first step, no matter what may come next.
All my heart,