Imagine a father who keeps his son chained under the house to protect him.

“He loved his son greatly,” said Inman White, executive director of Community Healthcore, “but he had nowhere to go (for help).”

Families of people with intellectual disabilities had little-to-no assistance. They had no independence. That was Longview and East Texas 50 years ago when Sabine Valley MHMR, now Community Healthcore, was created.

Before that, the choice was binary — institutionalization or nothing.

“The highest order of our calling is to help people become independent,” White said of the organization he has headed for 25 years.

Community Healthcore is a nonprofit local governing authority that provides counseling and other assistance to people with substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities in nine counties: Bowie, Cass, Gregg, Harrison, Marion, Panola, Red River, Rusk and Upshur.

“People must know how to ask for help,” he said. They have to know “it’s okay to ask (for help).”

“Stigma in this business kills.”

Community Healthcore is celebrating its 50th year of service and is one of 39 such communities throughout Texas.

The organization also helps outside the nine counties, when other area counties that don’t offer certain services have invited Healthcore to offer them to their residents. Community Healthcore employs about 500 people at 20-plus locations.

White, who has a master’s degree in counseling, worked eight years for Healthcore in Longview before moving to Austin to work for the state in the same field. He returned to Community Healthcore as executive director.

From the beginning, Sabine Valley’s first board of directors set high standards. Board members put their reputations and financial backing into the organization, he said. Community Healthcore is supported financially by state and federal funds, the United Way, Medicaid assistance and various charitable foundations and businesses.

“It’s (Healthcore) come a long way,” he said. “Medications have greatly evolved in the past 20 years” so that people can lead fuller lives while keeping their disabilities under control, “which gives them independence.”

Community Healthcore has evolved, too. As people work and innovate, and new methods of treatment and counseling are incorporated, better results are seen. Starting at Sabine Valley’s inception, strict guidelines were incorporated to honor the dignity and humanity of its clients, he said. Through the hard work of several generations of counselors and staff, those standards are still being met, he said.

There were “steps taken, seeds they planted, doors they opened,” he said. “We did some good watering,” White said.

He lauded all those who came before him and those who work with Healhcore now.

As for the 50th anniversary, it’s just another year of progress.

“I’m looking for the fifty-first,” he said. And then the fifty-second, and fifty-third and .....”

Answering the Bell

Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Bipolar disorder. Psychotic episodes. Helen Bell had checked off all those boxes. The future wasn’t exactly bright.

That was 11 years ago. Sober 11 years now and back in college and at age 59, Bell is a substance abuse counselor intern at Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson.

“I’m a productive member of society,” she said.

Bell gives Community Healthcore and Fredonia House, now Cornerstone Quarters, credit for her life-changing recovery.

“They saved my life! Do you hear me? They saved my life!”

Bell, originally from south Louisiana, began her downward spiral following the death of her mother in 1984 and her husband’s death in 1993.

“I thought God was punishing me,” she said. She had a dual diagnosis, bipolar with psychotic features and alcoholism coupled with drug addiction. Bell spent time in psychiatric hospitals in Shreveport, LA, and Tyler. “I was in and out, in and out” from 2004-2008, she said.

“Brentwood (Hospital, Shreveport) said I’d never be able to live alone- that I’d always be in a hospital or a transitional home.”

As a peer specialist, she works with others with the same diagnoses — peer-to-peer counseling.

After detoxification, she learned about “choices” at Fredonia House in 2008.

“They taught us everything,” Bell said. “I didn’t know I had choices. We learned about coping skills, healthy living, relapse, life skills: I especially learned about mental illnesses,” she said.

“I didn’t know I didn’t need to drink and drug to feel good. I was always suicidal.”

“Do you hear me? They saved my life!”

Bell lives in Longview and has three grown children and three grandkids. Working as a peer specialist, Bell has dedicated her rebirth to helping people. She finished basic course work at Kilgore College in 2019 and is now working on her certification as a counselor in substance abuse and chemical dependency through Tyler Junior College.

She had to leave her peer counseling position with Community Healthcore in February so she could get clinical exposure at the Henderson prison where she works with incarcerated addicts.

“My family is so proud of me! I’m going to graduate before I turn 60,” she said. “I couldn’t have done any of this without Community Healthcore and the grace of God,” Bell said.

“Bell is the personification of dignity,” said Inman White, executive director of Community Healthcore. ”She wants to be the best she can be. She has been a big part of the people we look to to help us” keep going in the right direction.

Bell also was a part of the Homeless Advocacy Network which was under the umbrella of Healthcore and Fredonia House. The nine counties served by Healthcore take monthly assessments of the homeless population through the Network. Annually the Network meets to assemble information to draw a complete picture of homelessness in the counties and submit it to the East Texas National Homeless Count. Bell was president of the Gregg County Network “three or four years in a row,” she said.

She gives White credit for her opportunity.

“He kicked off the peer-to-peer support group. I was one of the first he trained.” White demurred when told of Bell’s praise.

“I was involved in peer-to-peer training,” but it was an effort by many dedicated team members, he said.

Words of praise for Community Healthcore is one way for Bell to tout the good work Healthcore accomplishes.

“If God had blessed me with lots of money, I’d put it all in Community Healthcore to help build and grow the program, to invest in people.”

“Do you hear me?” she said one last time.

Jacob Tanner perseveres

Jacob Tanner of Ore City was born with intellectual disabilities. Things didn’t come easy for him.

His life is on the upswing now because of his perseverance and his advocates at Community Healthcore.

“I try not to let it stop me,” Tanner said of his disability.

Tanner, now 26, graduated from Ore City High School in 2012. Three years later he moved into Teri Lyn, an intermediate care facility in Longview. This Community Healthcore group home offers shelter to “adult males with mental retardation or a related condition,” according to a website for the home.

Residents access medical and psychological services as well as a wide range of activities in and outside the home. The objective: “encourage the acquisition or maintenance of behaviors necessary for the individual to function with as much self-determination and independence as possible and to prevent the loss of current functional status,” according to its website.

Tanner spent two years at Teri Lyn, 2015-2017, then moved to Evergreen, a similar facility, for two more years. He moved back to Ore City in 2019.

Prior to Tanner’s stints in group homes, he was associated with the volunteer fire departments of Ore City and Gilmer. When he moved back to Ore City to live with his parents, he resumed affiliation with the Ore City Volunteer Fire Department. He wants to learn about new techniques and equipment so he can become a firefighter.

He had plans recently to accompany the volunteer fire department to that evening’s Ore City High School football game to assist with players or fans who might need medical assistance.

He’s applying technology and leadership training he learned in group homes in other areas.

Tanner is a member of the Ore City First United Methodist Church. He uses a computer to project song lyrics to worshippers and controls the soundboard at the 9 a.m. Sunday Praise and Worship service.

Pastor Douglas Smith has known Tanner both pre-and-post Healthcore. Smith was the minister for about 10 years in Ore City and then moved away. He came out of retirement to retake the Ore City pastorate.

“Jacob helps in a hundred different ways,” Smith said. “He just matured later in life than most people.” Pre-Healthcore “he had an attitude that he couldn’t do anything. He’s a different person” (now).

Tanner wants to work in full time ministry one day. In some ways, he has already fulfilled that goal as a member of the Gregg County Self Advocates.

“It’s a great program,” he said. “You learn about your mental rights and how to help others.”

Community Healthcore’s group homes emphasize leadership. In the residential homes he learned life skills and became a leader in the Self Advocacy group. “I’ve come a long way.”

He attended the Texas Conference on Self Advocacy where people are trained to advocate for themselves and others. Tanner has served as president and vice president of the Gregg County Self Advocacy group, which is under the aegis of the ARC of Gregg County.

“Jacob is a wise leader. He speaks up when other people should be speaking up, but don’t. He is a reminder of what is right,” Inman White, Healthcore executive director, said,

Tanner agrees: “I learned the responsibility of passing along what I know” from Community Healthcore.

“Don’t let anything keep you from following your dream.”

Virginia Smith goes fishingVirginia Smith grew up in California in a house of secrets.

“And I kept my secrets to myself for a long time.”

The sixth of eight children she was verbally, sexually and physically abused from age 6 to 12. The abuse included incest.

“It was not a home,” she said, “it was a house.”

She married Larry Smith three months after their high school graduation and they moved to Longview about the time Sabine Valley MHMR was being formed.

The Smiths have three adult children, seven grandkids and three great-grandkids. Virginia Smith describes herself as a “young” 70.

She struggled alone with her childhood abuse until about age 35, when she sought medical help. She was diagnosed with major depression and prescribed Prozac, which only masked her problems. She felt alone.

“I thought no one else went through what I did.”

She knew she needed to talk, so she hosted gatherings in her home of Christian women who had also experienced abuse so they could talk. It was the beginning of her peer-to-peer counseling.

She later received college training and became an ordained minister, not to preach, she said, but to better understand God and to seek answers. She worked at a church as an administrative pastor and continued to reach out to abused women.

With the help of her women’s group, God and her husband, she began to reckon with her abuse.

Smith quotes a favorite verse from the Bible, Genesis 50:20. Joseph is addressing his brothers, saying, “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people who are alive today because of what happened.”

“God has used me to help people,” Smith said.

Smith began work at Community Healthcore in 2013 as a mental health peer specialist.

She is now a state Certified Peer Specialist, which allows her to work one-on-one with people who have had trauma similar to hers.

“I enjoy my job and the people I work with,” she said.

Community Healthcore is a “beacon — a lighthouse in Longview,” she said. The organization offers “trauma-informed care.” This means that specialists like Smith offer trauma counseling based on “lived experience.”

“We need to look at people as people. Don’t make that person a diagnosis.” For example, one shouldn’t call a client a schizophrenic, she said, but instead say “he deals with schizophrenia. People are being taught they are their diagnosis.” That can inhibit their recovery, but if they feel empowered to collaborate with doctors and counselors, their chances of recovery increase, she said.

“Emergency room doctors, instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with you,’ should ask ‘what happened to you?’” This is ‘person centered” care, she said. “It puts the person in the driver’s seat of their recovery.”

Person-centered care allows people who use health and social services to be equal partners in planning, developing and monitoring care to make sure it meets their needs.

“That’s what I do as a (certified) peer specialist,” she said. It is why she enjoys her job. “I help people reach their hopes and goals.”

“Virginia sees the world as it should be,” said Inman White, Healthcore’s executive director. “She is the consummate optimist and speaks to the beauty in the world.”

Reflecting on her work, Smith quotes the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime …

“That’s what I do. I teach them to fish.”

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