Celebrating Occupational Therapy Month
Occupational therapy is a crucial component of our Headway program year round, and this month, we’re celebrating our occupational therapists to honor the incredible impact they’ve made in our community.
Here at Bastion, we have two amazing occupational therapists who approach their roles as both a career and a calling. They work in individual and group settings to help our Headway participants maximize independence and quality of life.
“When I heard about occupational therapy, it was as if they created the profession for me, because I feel so well suited to it and honestly very lucky to be a part of this profession,” Clinical Director Rachel Schwenk says. “We are the rehabilitation professionals that really focus on real life daily tasks as the intervention to maximize people's potential.”
Occupational therapist Caity Bower was drawn to the field because it allows her to be a continuous learner at any stage of her career, merging meaningful treatment interventions like play, socialization, music and art with the science of neurology and physiotherapy.
Through this holistic approach, Caity and Rachel look at the whole person to help them address both daily self care needs and higher level needs around cognition, work training, volunteer exploration, and social development.
“At its core, it’s client-centered, which I think is the best modality and treatment for veterans. And I also think it's the most ethical form of treatment,” Caity says. “When trying to create meaningful daily change in a person's life, OTs can be on the ground, in the community, and in the home.”
Occupational therapy is vital to veterans transitioning to civilian life because it helps them practice real life skills and tasks in a non-simulated setting. Through Headway, they’re also supported by their fellow participants, with peer-mentor relationships developing organically within the group. This creates a unique environment for our OTs to work with participants in innovative ways.
“Only 3% of occupational therapists work in this mental health or community type of space,” Rachel says. “And so it's a very niche practice area for an occupational therapist to be in.”
Both Rachel and Caity are proud of the success of the Headway program and the progress they have seen from participants, and are excited to be a part of Headway’s continuous growth.
“I would say that we've really created a family. And there's no better form of therapy than having the support of a family and a chosen family that we've created here,” Caity says. “It just paves the way for increased meaning in life and increased engagement in what is meaningful to a person. And we do that as a team and as a family.”
We are so grateful for Rachel and Caity’s commitment to our community’s veterans. Their energy, creativity, clinical expertise and compassion have transformed the daily lives of so many veterans at Bastion.
“I feel just immensely blessed to be part of a profession that fiercely advocates and elevates people to the best version of themselves,” Rachel says. “And I hope to be a trailblazing occupational therapist to really prove that our profession deserves a seat at the table with this population, especially in this setting.”
Spring has sprung at Bastion! From our thriving community garden to an abundance of new trees planted by generous volunteers, signs of new life are all around.
Headway participant Nick Valentino has been a leader in developing the community garden, building garden beds of various depths and sizes along with a fully functional chicken coop.
Nick’s carpentry skills combined with staff member Caity Bower’s sustainable gardening knowledge have brought new ideas and possibilities to Bastion’s outdoor spaces, while simultaneously bolstering our food program with fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs.
“It's free for anyone to go from the neighborhood here at Bastion, they go in there, pick and cook with it themselves because there's herbs grown down there too. But also, for the cooking group that Caity and Rachel do on Fridays, they'll go and pick from the garden and incorporate that in the cooking group that they do for the guys.”
When produce is plentiful, it’s picked and put in the food pantry fridge for residents or used by our two resident chefs, Shantrise Sykes and Sylvia Magee, in their community meals.
Gardening at Bastion is a skill and passion that’s being passed down generationally by resident Clarissa Moramarco, who has been part of the Bastion community for five years. Clarissa hosts twice monthly garden meetings for the children of Headway participants, and is working to include more resident kids in the future.
Clarissa has been gardening since she was 14, taking over for her father, a Navy veteran, after a heart attack prevented him from maintaining their outdoor spaces himself.
“I took over and I just started loving gardening and I love being outdoors and I like growing things I can give to people,” Clarissa says. “I also really wanted to combine the gardening with arts and crafts and cooking. So that's kind of what makes it unique.”
Clarissa likes to begin her sessions with crafts to help the kids settle down and give them time to chat and connect. On top of learning basic gardening techniques and the science behind how plants grow, the kids have also created custom plaques and plant kit containers.
“Each plant holder is as unique as the children,” Clarissa says.
Thank you to Nick, Caity, and Clarissa for promoting a culture of sustainable gardening and hands-on learning here at Bastion! And thank you to Nola Tree Project and the volunteers of SCA Health for donating your time and energy to help bring new trees and plant life to our community.
Acupuncture Sessions at Bastion
Acupuncturists Emily Cronin and Thomas McCarty provide free monthly sessions to Bastion residents
Opening our minds to new possibilities requires seeing results. That’s what happened to two local acupuncturists who now bring their knowledge and expertise to the Bastion community on a monthly basis, free of charge.
Thomas McCarty, owner of Tree of Life Acupuncture, first became passionate about helping others from watching his own mother navigate illness. He learned how to cook her a Japanese macrobiotic diet, which led to his interest in herbalism and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The tools of this practice treat the mind and body as one, a perspective that can be particularly helpful to veterans navigating both physical and mental injuries. Acupuncture can be part of this approach, serving as a powerful grounding method, and providing an immediate therapeutic effect.
“Bringing the mind into the present is a very therapeutic thing for people who may be haunted by experiences overseas or at home, wherever that might be, or whose pain may be magnified by memories,” McCarty said.
McCarty provides acupuncture to Bastion’s veterans alongside Emily Cronin, who also became passionate about the practice through early life experiences. After witnessing how acupuncture helped her mother, Cronin was drawn to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine as a holistic way of healing.
“I thought that it was an affordable way of helping people feel better, and mitigating the excessive use of painkillers,” Cronin said. “And I just thought that in this country, that these could be great ways to help yourself and help people you love too.”
Bastion resident Susan Lutz agrees. She frequently takes advantage of the free sessions and has felt the benefits.
“I've had circulatory problems for the last few years,” said Lutz. “For example, my arms frequently fall asleep. I always feel a little better after an acupuncture session and I don't experience circulatory issues for a few days. “
McCarty and Cronin never select acupoints in advance. A session starts with questioning and identifying patterns to establish a treatment plan. This can involve targeting specific bodily networks, or checking for skin changes like tension, temperature, or tenderness before inserting needles at strategic points to relieve symptoms and correct patterns of imbalance.
“There's like a field of right answers,” Cronin said. “And then within that, you have different avenues that will get you to your end goal faster, or more directly.”
McCarty says that working with veterans at Bastion disproved his preconceived notions about the kinds of challenges veterans live with and has made him more aware of the way in which smaller wear and tear injuries can develop into major issues.
“Just individually, there's people who have such interesting stories, what they've been through and what they're into, and what they're building in their lives,” McCarty said. “And then as a community, it's just an incredible community…it's going to be the model for other places around the country.”
At Bastion, we rely on a wide variety of tools to support the healing and wellbeing of our veterans. Thanks to the skills and generosity of these two local acupuncturists, Bastion is able to offer monthly community acupuncture to our residents, completely free of cost.
The Bastion Brothers take a bow after Veterans Experience Project performance
Music can give us much more than just a catchy tune that we sing along to while driving or cleaning the house. It can help strengthen community, build inner and outer connections, and help us to heal.
That’s the idea behind Bastion’s music therapy, and it’s on full display during a recent afternoon in the Purple Heart room where a group of veterans* are working on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” lead by music therapist, Jeremy Love. Sitting in a circle, one vet plays xylophone, a vet jams on a keyboard-sounding iPad, and there is another playing harmonica with Love calling out chords and strumming a guitar.
It sounds good, and it’s kind of amazing to see and hear how quickly it comes together, but there’s also something going on underneath, perhaps subconsciously. Love, who has a master's degree in music therapy and has been working with the Bastion community for many years, draws it out with a simple question: “What do you associate with silence?”
One man tells how the song reminds him of good training days when he would play the song in his head while rucking with a full pack. Another vet doesn’t hold such fond memories. For him, the piece reminds him of the eerie and uncertain silence after a firefight. The others listen intently and offer encouragement: “It’s okay. You’ve got this.”
This isn’t an easy moment, and throughout the session the affected vet is comforted by his comrades. But it is a breakthrough, and it shows music’s transformative power to open people up when words might fail.
“What we’re trying to do with our group is to facilitate connection,” Love says. “And we’re using music as an agent of growth.”
Love is quick to point out that not all of their sessions are so intense and there’s often a lot of joy and synergy between veterans. In fact, the recent Veterans Experience Project at Gallier Hall put that on full display. Calling themselves the “Baston Brothers,” the group gathered onstage to play an original song in a Chicago Blues style with the lyrics relating what their time in the military was like and coming home.
You can hear the pride in the vets’ voices when they talk about that performance, and you can feel how playing music has brought them even closer together. And as Love points out, this therapeutic power isn’t limited only to the vets.
“Bastion is such a unique place, and I’m honored to be here,” says Love. “There have been times when I’ve been down in the dumps, and they have raised me up.”
*Due to the therapeutic nature of this article, we chose not to specifically name the veterans involved.
With the holidays over, now's a good time to start getting in shape for a good cause by becoming a runner or walker for Bastion's Crescent City Classic Team! Team Bastion is the only veterans organization that is part of the Classic's "Run for It" Charity Program, and the funds raised allow us to continue providing these services to our Vets:
Interested in becoming a Bastion sponsor for the 2023 Crescent City Classic? Check out "How to be a Bastion Sponsor."
Here's how to register for Team Bastion:
Have trouble with the registration? We can help!
As a member of Team Bastion you will receive a custom t-shirt and free pass to the finish line extravaganza for libations and high-fives with the rest of the team.
Thank You and We'll See You on Race Day!
Headway Spotlight: Wilbert 'Wil' Young
Headway member Wilbert 'Wil' Young at Banks Street Service Station, where he does vocational training.
When it comes to brain injury recovery, neuroplasticity is one of the most critical processes and gives hope to people living with these injuries. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself throughout life, producing new connections and pathways, which means if a part of the brain becomes damaged, other parts of the brain can compensate for the injury and restore function.
One of the keys to neuroplasticity is stimulation.Headway participant, Wilbert ‘Wil’ Young, shows us what neuroplasticity and stimulation is all about.
Wil served as a mechanic in the US Army and National Guard from 1994 until 2019 until he acquired a traumatic brain injury of unknown origins. For months, Wil received treatment in a California rehabilitation hospital and was unable to communicate who he was or where he was from. Eventually he recovered enough to identify himself and was reunited with his family in New Orleans.
Despite his homecoming and reuniting with his mom, Wil was still largely uncommunicative with limited motor function. His parents found out about Bastion’s Headway program and Wil joined it in 2020. Wil began attending the group sessions and one-on-one therapy with Headway’s occupational therapist, Rachel Schwenk.
“He’s made significant strides and improvements in his brain injury recovery,” says Rachel. “He was practically nonverbal when he first arrived and now is communicative, friendly and enjoys the camaraderie of the Headway group.”
During one OT session in his Broadmoor neighborhood, Wil and Rachel combined exercise and photography, which was part of the disposable camera workshop led by photographer/artist Fanny Garcia, who is also a veteran.
Wil stands next to his award-winning photograph.
Wil’s photograph of an abandoned bus was displayed in an exhibit at the New Orleans Photo Alliance, and later won first prize in the color photography at the local Veterans Affairs’ arts festival. And just a few weeks ago after displaying the photo in another exhibit, Phelps/Dunbar purchased the photograph and it’s now permanently hanging in its law offices.
“That was fun. I liked that,” says Wil. “I feel like an artist.”
Wil is also regaining his automotive mechanic skills from his days in the service. As part of Headway’s vocational skills training, Wil and Rachel have been spending time at the Banks Street Service Station, and he has been working with owner Tommie Thurmond and the other mechanics on brake repair and other jobs.
Wil says that the experience has been kindling old memories, stimulating him to remember things he used to know, and he’s thankful that the Headway program continues helping him in his recovery.
“It’s great. It actually helps you harness your abilities and brings out the best in you.”
Bastion Groundbreaking in 2016
Ten years is a long time, and since its founding in 2012, Bastion Community of Resilience has accomplished quite a bit, but we’re not resting on our laurels. Bastion is working on the next ten years to ensure all local veterans transitioning out of military service have the tools they need to succeed in civilian life.
Dylan Tête, an Iraq War Veteran with a master’s degree in public health, first arrived in New Orleans in 2005 after leaving Iraq and the US Army. Married and a new father, he struggled with the transition to civilian life and Dylan realized that many veterans, especially those with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and other conditions, were also struggling when they came home.
“There was a gap in the continuum of care for warriors who need lifelong rehabilitative care,” Dylan says. “Outpatient care after hospitalization wasn’t enough.” (something he observed upon his visits to Walter Reed, the Center for the Intrepid, and the VA’s polytrauma hub in Virginia).
What warriors and families needed the most was a supportive community of neighbors that could cure persistent loneliness and optimize social reintegration. So Dylan traveled to Hope Meadows in Illinois to learn more about their specialized neighborhood of care that used “intentional neighboring” as a primary intervention for foster youth and adoptive families. Dylan worked with Brenda Eheart, the founder of Hope Meadows, to adapt their model for a military population.
Bastion was born.
Bastion under construction 2016-17
Bastion broke ground on its first phase--38 apartments and a community center on a 5-acre campus located in New Orleans in 2016 and by 2018, it added 20 additional apartments for a total of 58. Primarily focused on veterans and families transitioning from military service to civilian life, Bastion is a thriving community, where residents benefit from the experience of helping others, promoting wellbeing and life satisfaction. The Bastion approach restores families, reduces stress at home, and expands social networks to strengthen resilience.
Celebrating full occupancy of Phase One
Dylan has more plans for Bastion.
“No veteran in the New Orleans area who is transitioning out of military service should fall through the cracks, and no one should struggle alone,” Dylan says.
Bastion will lead the effort in this goal by becoming a backbone organization in Southeast Louisiana and linking other veteran organizations together to create collective impact. Bastion will also promote health and wellbeing in the Gentilly neighborhood through its third phase: a wellness center that will serve military families in the metro area as well as the general public.
“I want Gentilly to be a thriving place for young families and our elders who have contributed so much to this neighborhood, and I think that can happen,” Dylan says, referring to the wellness center.
Since its founding 10 years ago, Bastion has been about helping people and communities become healthier. It’s a model that should be replicated throughout the country with Bastion communities in every major American city. And that’s exactly what the organization is working toward in the next ten years.
Help Bastion celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Veterans Day, November 11 with the “Veterans Experience Project” from 10am-6pm at Gallier Hall.
Resident Spotlight: Darius Sampey
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.”
Mental Health: We All Deserve It
“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.”
Staff Spotlight: Lovella Calica
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.