HAVERHILL — Organizers of a unique “clinic in the park” say their project to provide veterans with free mental health counseling in a tranquil setting could become a model for other communities.
A Warrior Support Task Force that formed two days prior to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coordinated the clinic at Mill Brook Park, where veterans could sit down with trained mental health councilors and peer support specialists from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sept. 11 to 13.
They could also speak to fellow veterans and area chaplains to unburden themselves of anxiety associated with 9/11 and other events, particularly the Aug. 26 attack at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that resulted in the death of 13 members of the military, including Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario of Lawrence.
“Sixteen veterans received various services including mental health counseling, chaplain counseling, mentoring and nutritional support,” said Ralph Basiliere, a founding member of the Warrior Support Task Force. “Veterans came seeking services instead of the alternative of not seeking services and possibly deteriorating mentally.”
Basiliere said the goal of the clinic was to prevent an uptick on suicides and acute crisis among area veterans.
He said the project was created and rapidly put into action with the support of Mayor James Fiorentini and Luis Santiago, the city’s director of veterans services.
Santiago was among seven peer support specialists who were offered a sympathetic ear, Basiliere said.
Four clinicians were provided at no cost by Arbor Counseling, while chaplains came from Sacred Hearts Parish, Leaving the Streets Ministries and the American Legion.
“One veteran from Litchfield, New Hampshire, whose wife recently died, came to us for counseling services and for companionship and conversation to combat his grief, while another veteran came to us to talk about his feelings of sadness and anxiety surrounding the death of Sgt. Rosario,” Basiliere said.
Santiago said the group began its day Saturday by providing peer specialist support to a veteran who was experiencing anxiety and depression due to the circumstances in Afghanistan.
Sunday saw requests for information about appointments at VA clinics and hospitals, public and private hospitals, and for information about Veteran Affairs and Chapter 115 benefits.
“They talked about a lack of handicap accessible vans and the last-minute cancellation of appointments and how they lose their spot on the van that departs from the Citizens Center and on the MVRTA shuttle bus that departs from Washington Square,” he said.
On Monday, veterans — including one from Lawrence — came for help trying to understand why events in Afghanistan had transpired, Santiago said.
“Many had strong beliefs and were trying to make sense of everything going on around them,” he said.
Santiago said the event caught the attention of Jamie Melendez, director of veterans services for the city of Lawrence.
“He saw the impact we made and he wants to emulate the clinic to ensure veterans in Lawrence receive the same kinds of services,” Santiago said.
Three days of continental breakfasts, hot lunches, and dinners from local restaurants were paid for by Covanta Energy, Driscoll Funeral Home, City Council President Melinda Barrett, Michael Malvers of Haverhill Steel, and an anonymous donor.
“We also received $1,000 in in-kind services (porta toilets, chairs, and tables) from Covanta, United Site Services, and Taylor Rental,” Basiliere said. “Our program showed people how to rapidly develop and execute a comprehensive clinic in response to local conditions.”