Helping America's Most Vulnerable

"Hey, Did You Hear the One About..."

A visit to Beach Street House in Saco may just leave you smiling

When we came to the back door of the beautiful house on Beach Street, and stepped into the bright kitchen, we were greeted by three men. One very shy gentleman, dressed in khakis and a button down shirt, looked up briefly and offered a quiet hello, then looked away. Another, wearing an old leather jacket and a cap said, "Hello! Hey, did you hear the story about the reporter and the ice cream? Really, it's a great story," and he went on to tell a complicated and very funny joke, with a face lit up like the sun. Another man came in saying, "How are you today?" He asked us, then reported, without pause, "I am just great."

Leann Coll and her dog Hank work in an office off the kitchen that is accessible to the medication room and to the rest of the house through various doors. In fact, there are so many doors in the house it was difficult to imagine which led where, but every door opened to an inviting indoor or outdoor space.

Leann has been working for Volunteers of America for eleven years as a residential counselor, and is now assistant program manager. She helps train new employees during their "shadowing" time at Beach Street.

"I have learned as much as I have taught," Leann says, "things like patience," she adds. Patience with the men when they are disappointed, patience with the paperwork, patience with the ways in which the house finds balance again when a client leaves or a new client comes along. "They can be here for 2 to 5 years so we grow close to each other. Some of the guys have a difficult time when their friends leave the program," she adds, "We have a great bunch right now."

Residential counselors draw on many tools to support their clients' work in meeting goals, a requirement of staying in the program. A goal could be as simple as helping cook meals, getting outside, or talking to others in the house. A few clients go to mens' groups during the day. They try to establish community ties and find peer groups. Any kind of activity or effort that helps them transition to a lower level of care is deeply encouraged.

Dinner at Beach Street is "family style." Clients help plan, cook and shop if they wish. Everyone gets to request a favorite meal once a week. After dinner, they might watch a movie or play a game.

Also, like our other behavioral health programs, everyone gets one-on-one time with a counselor at least once a week, to do almost anything they would like. Sometimes, the whole house closes for a few hours and everyone goes to the movies.

While Gary tells joke after joke in the kitchen, Dawn Mills, program manager, encourages another client to walk with her in the garden. She holds out her hand and he accepts.

Dawn tells us, "One of our clients has done so well that he has moved into the Carriage House," a studio apartment that adjoins the house. "He rides his bicycle everywhere and works part time."

There is a feeling of accord at Beach Street. Even though the clients might not agree with each other during conversation, or their behaviors may rub someone the wrong way, they are tolerant of one another. "It's the relationships that matter," Leann says, "Building relationships is the key to trust, and trust is everything to our clients. Also," she adds with a fond glance to Gary, "we try not to take things too seriously and to have fun."

As we are saying goodbye to the clients, Gary, the joke teller, says, "Oh, sorry to see you leave, hey, have you heard the one about the cauliflower and the broccoli…" Everyone starts to laugh. He follows us out to the parking lot, on a roll with the next punchline.

The "goal" of having fun is definitely being met at Beach Street. Laughter truly is great medicine.