Bonnie O’Donnell is program director of MHA’s GRIT-Yale Street residential recovery program that opened last April in Holyoke. It serves those who identify LGBTQ+ with substance use and mental health diagnoses, and Bonnie says such a program where “everyone is somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum” has allowed residents in its 14 months of existence an acceptance never experienced in other programs that is helping to advance individual recovery.
“People in our program often have never been in a program where everyone is somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum,” Bonnie said. “They’ve never been anywhere that their gender identity or sexual expression is simply an ‘is.’ It’s always been a barrier. So, at Yale Street we have effectively eliminated one huge barrier to recovery. This allows our people to focus on other things, which may include how their sexuality or gender identity has played into their substance use and-or mental health issues.”
She added that “being an exclusive LGBTQ+ house is the first thing that everyone cites as being the huge difference that has been helpful to them.”
“We have had residents who have cycled through different pronoun use, try out different names, as well as have the freedom to dress in any style or gender that they wish,” Bonnie said. “Other benefits that they cite include things like feeling they can have a second chance if they make a mistake; having their own bedroom – only one of our rooms is a double; treatment is individualized; there is a concerted attempt to connect people to outside resources; having a clinician imbedded in the program; and having a super-supportive staff.”
She said an atmosphere of support is helped by having everyone assigned a peer mentor when they arrive and also by the fact that programming is framed by trauma-informed care. She added the program has an “open-door policy for leadership so we are very visible in the house to all residents.”
“Our desire is to be our resident’s biggest allies to the community with the express goal of keeping everyone in the house safe,” Bonnie said. “To that end, we use preferred pronouns, we talk about gender issues and healthy sexuality, we’re open to learning from each other about subjects and issues that we might not be familiar with.”
She said the “best part of the job and the reason we are all here” is found in watching residents grow in confidence.
“I have trouble making speeches about our program because I end up getting all teary about what it’s like to work here.” Bonnie said. “We have had residents who came in unsure of who they were, unsure if they could stay sober for more than 30 days, and when they meet and surpass those goals it is truly amazing. Our residents gain confidence in being among their peers, and just that alone allows them the courage to face others who might view them in a negative way.”
She added that as “an older bisexual woman, I love that I can serve my community, my peers, as GRIT-Yale Street Program Director.”
I have a history that most of my staff don’t have because I remember what it used to be like,” Bonnie said. “I bring that to my work every day and marvel at how far we have come, but also mourn how much we have yet to do. Yale Street residents are my constant inspiration in their humor, their hard work, their resourcefulness, and their dedication to recovery, and it helps that I have an amazing staff.”