By Carl Blumenthal
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
SUNSET PARK – From the windows of the 10th floor of 882 Third Ave. (between 32nd and 33rd streets), you can see over the buildings and streets of Sunset Park to the Statue of Liberty. For anyone who's ever struggled with mental illness, this view from the new Resource and Wellness Center of Baltic Street AEH (Advocacy, Employment, Housing) represents the hope of overcoming emotional trauma and rejoining the mainstream of urban life.
According to Director Sarah Goodman, the center’s goal is to complement the medical rehabilitation model of therapy and medication by "reconnecting people with their creative spirits and with a community of like souls. We believe this is very healing."
The center's mission statement elaborates: "When we create something, we give it our full undivided attention. ... The music or the paint or the wood or the cake flour or the patch of fertile ground ... lifts us above the problems we have, takes us out of ourselves, [and] gives us something to look forward to ... It gives us hope."
Thus, the center offers free classes and individual coaching in guitar playing and music recording, poetry and other creative writing, the visual arts, and crafts.
While these activities may be therapeutic, they are not traditional art therapy as practiced in hospitals and clinics. Rather, the center hires musicians, writers, painters, etc. and sensitizes them to the needs of mental health consumers, much as the school system contracts with artists for workshops in the classroom.
Nor does the center's staff check whether its visitors have an official diagnosis. Consumers are encouraged to bring friends and family. In only a year of the center's existence, the number of visits has climbed to 400 a month, mainly through word of mouth and referrals from traditional mental health providers.
Baltic Street AEH (formerly the Baltic Street Mental Health Board), headquartered at 250 Baltic St. in Cobble Hill, is the largest consumer-run mental health agency in the state, with sites throughout the metropolitan area. Isaac Brown, CEO of the organization, reiterated the creative arts mission of the center as "a method of recovery for myself and others," and added that yoga and meditation practiced there are part of a holistic healing philosophy. It's also a place where people can "mix and mingle."
Sarah Goodman explained that another goal of the center is to "bring wellness to how [Baltic Street AEH] offers all its services." For example, the staff of the rest of the organization will ask consumer-clients, "Do you have a WRAP [Wellness Recovery Action Plan]?" At the center, you can design one.
When this reporter recently visited the center's 3,000-square-foot, pink-and-red-painted space, informality reigned. A dozen visitors variously watched a music video, made crafts, surfed the internet and performed calisthenics.
Whether it's true, as staff and members claimed, that there is no other place like this in the city, the fact that the program is completely funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health is unique. The center's comprehensive approach to wellness also includes support groups, such as "Genuinely Men," current events, "Collective Wisdom," "Thinking Club," time and money management, movie nights, and a monthly social. Literacy and math classes and GED tutoring are also available.
Jimmy Santiago of Bedford-Stuyvesant comes to the center several days a week to exercise, write poetry and avoid isolation. He explained, "Here you can always find somebody you can open up to and get a helping hand. Share your history [of mental illness] and how to fix it. The groups give you ideas how to go about things."
Yasmine Kamel, program manager, summed up the center's work: "Beautiful things happen here. We offer creative resources and practical skills. Small differences in lives lead to big changes."
Call (718) 788-6100 for more information.