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Volunteer Projects Boost Mental Health in Sacramento

Shanna Thompson and program coordinator Kayla Rueda
From left, Nueva Vista Sacramento program coordinator Josephine Robinson, Fruit Ridge community outreach director Erin Stone and Psynergy’s Shanna Thompson join forces at Fruit Ridge Collaborative Center.

September 17, 2019 - Psynergy Programs is becoming a trusted partner in the world of Sacramento non-profit organizations. It’s happening largely through outreach efforts by volunteers from Nueva Vista Sacramento, a residential facility serving and supporting persons with serious mental illness. 

Prioritizing community outreach is an approach crafted by program director Shanna Thompson, (pictured above, right, with program coordinator Kayla Rueda) who credits the program for motivating Nueva Vista’s residents to challenge themselves while helping others. 

“Our volunteer program includes a five-part series that tackles various areas of community service,” says Thompson. “All of the tasks we take on fall into one or more areas. They include environment/conservation, community programs and development, human services, animal services and relief /emergency.”

Recently Nueva Vista volunteers have partnered with Fruit Ridge Collaborative Center, a repurposed elementary school and neighborhood hub providing a location for non-profit organizations to run their businesses and host events. Thompson takes a team of eight volunteers to Fruit Ridge once each week to do light landscape maintenance, which she categorizes as a conservation/environmental initiative. (Pictured from left, Nueva Vista Sacramento program coordinator Josephine Robinson, Fruit Ridge community outreach director Erin Stone and Psynergy’s Shanna Thompson join forces at Fruit Ridge Collaborative Center.)

“Weather permitting, we spend the day picking up trash and debris, raking leaves, pruning plants and trees and watering,” says Thompson. “We’re not using any heavy equipment, just shears, rakes, brooms and clippers. But after a day at Fruit Ridge, our entire team can see and appreciate what a difference they have made. It’s a very satisfying experience.”

“I love them!” says Erin Stone, Fruit Ridge’s community outreach director. “It’s so nice to have them arrive every week on Fridays, since we’re right next door. We designate an area that needs TLC and they help us pick up trash, water trees – tasks vary depending on what needs to be done. Our site is home to 23 organizations serving 15,000 people in the community. Having Psynergy come every week is huge for us in keeping the place welcoming and safe for everyone to work in and use the services.”

The  underlying rationale fo the volunteer program is simple, but powerful.

“We encourage residents to give back intrinsically while developing coping skills within the community,” says Thompson.  “By doing kind things–things that make them feel good, about their work as a team, and about themselves, they increase their confidence and self-esteem, and decrease feelings of isolation. They develop a sense of purpose and meaning within themselves and the community.”

Residents sign up for the projects they’re interested in. Recently that has also included community programs and development cleaning days to pick up trash in the neighborhood parks, streets and river access areas, and as a recent addition, working with animal services partner Happy Tails

“This initiative will be rewarding for residents who like to spend time with animals,” Thompson says. “We have just put this partnership together, so the first step for our volunteers is to go through an orientation class. When that is complete, they will spend time grooming, socializing and playing with the cats and dogs to make them more adoptable. We also find that animal therapy assistance improves the overall well-being and mood of our residents, along with increasing independent living skills.”

While working with animals is a guaranteed source of warm fuzzies, Nueva Vista Sacramento’s volunteers don’t neglect their human counterparts. On a regular basis the group assembles care packages for the betterment of underserved populations in Sacramento. Recently they put together 50 hygiene care packages for Next Move, a non-profit organization that offers services for the homeless. The packages include toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and other personal care items. The volunteers meet on Mondays to discuss what’s going on in the community and where they might be able to assist.  Then they vote on which initiatives they would like to do, and the majority rules. 

“Having discussion and buy-in is so important to everyone’s self-esteem and autonomy,” says Thompson. “I give them options, and tell them why I want to go in one direction or the other, but ultimately they decide. It’s a good way to model self-governing and self-actualization in a real-world exercise.”

Nueva Vista Sacramento has become a member of the South Oak Park Association, an informal neighborhood group that includes both homeowners and local businesses.  On National Night Out on August 6 the residents threw a block party for the neighborhood with free hot dogs, drinks and chips plus lawn games with prizes for local kids. The event drew about 50 participants, and the residents had so much fun they want to do it again. As hosts, they wore fun blue t-shirts sporting a Superman logo modified with a “P” for “Psynergizers,” and the legend “Psynergy Volunteers in the Community” on the back. Volunteers must earn their shirts before they can be worn with pride as one of the “Psynergizers.”

Thompson has a stamp-card system that tracks volunteer hours for each member of her team. When a resident earns eight stamps, they are rewarded with their t-shirt and a special outing–usually a visit to an area restaurant or ice-cream shop in the neighborhood. So as Psynergy’s Nueva Vista volunteers work to help others in the community, they also improve the business climate by picking up trash and sprucing up the area. In addition to stamps, they are collecting positive experiences. And looking very sharp while they’re at it!