April 2022 Newsletter | Project Heal   

April 2022 Newsletter - Latest News, Updates, & Stories

From Haiti to Home: Project HEAL Client Peterson

Peterson MentorWhile growing up in Haiti, Peterson Mentor recalls watching American films and imagining what life would be like here. “I remember thinking how great life looked in America in the movies,” said Peterson, a Project HEAL client. “Coming here and moving into the environment I did, I realized it wasn't like how I thought it was going to be.”

Life in Haiti for Peterson was difficult. Government corruption within the country, food shortages, inequality, and violence left a lasting impression on him. “I saw a lot of people dying,” recalled Peterson, “even the wild dogs were violent, we had to run away from them on a daily basis.” Conditions within the country forced Peterson's mother to leave and come to America, hoping to establish herself and send for her family later. However, this left Peterson in the care of his father, who was abusive to him and his sisters. Peterson describes being beaten so badly by his father that he could sometimes barely walk afterwards. These experiences would be the first of many that would lay the groundwork for Peterson’s journey.

At thirteen years old, Peterson and his family were finally able to move to America and live with his mother, who was residing in a lower income section of Queens, NY. His introduction to America was one of violence and racism within the black community in Queens, who were distrusting of Haitin immigrants. “We basically had to band together in the Haitin community to survive,” said Peterson. “So many people would have a problem with us because we were Haitin, they would wait outside for us at school. Some had gang affiliations and guns.” After living in Queens for almost four years and avoiding any serious injury, Peterson and his family moved to Asbury Park when he was seventeen.

Moving as a teenager is a big adjustment for anyone. Thankfully, Peterson quickly established a core group of friends when moving to Asbury. Able to avoid trouble upon first moving to the area, it was not long before he was swept up in the community violence that plagued Asbury at the time. It was a familiar story for Peterson, having to band together with friends in order to avoid being violently assaulted in the community. However, his luck would eventually run out. One evening, Peterson was viciously attacked by multiple individuals which resulted in him being knocked unconscious and hospitalized for a period of time. “Something just snapped after that, I wasn't the same,“ said Peterson. “I was just sick of being abused from every angle, seeing my friends get shot. I was just angry after that and wanted to hurt the world like it hurt me.” These events set Peterson on a path where he would eventually succumb to his environment, reacting in the only way he thought he could protect himself, by picking up a gun.


After receiving his first gun charge at eighteen years old, Peterson spent the next twenty years doing whatever he could to make money on the street, mainly selling drugs. In this time, he cycled in and out of prison multiple times, always falling back into the same pattern. “You come out of jail and it's really hard, your mind is different, you feel like a loser. You have nobody to help you do anything, and just forget about everything and go back to the same pattern because it's easy.” said Peterson. He goes on to stress that doing the wrong thing is easy, it's making a change that is the hard part. After being charged with distribution in 2016, Peterson served five years in prison. However, his release this time would be different.

Peterson was tired of being angry and wanted to make a change, especially after the recent birth of his son. He fully immersed himself in release programs when his sentence was finished. After linking up with the NJ Re-Entry Program to find some stability, Peterson was then referred to Project HEAL for continuation of services and support. “From the door, the moment I came in, it was very welcoming. Tracy the secretary made me feel at ease, it felt like a family atmosphere here.” said Peterson. “The questions I came in with, the answers I wanted, I found out I had them all along, I just needed help finding them on my own.” Peterson has been involved with Project HEAL for the last six months. He explained how this has been the first time he has really addressed his issues upon release from prison.

Peterson Mentor

Coming to Project HEAL, Peterson engaged in trauma informed therapy sessions to begin addressing the symptoms related to his long history of trauma. Once he was participating in program services on a regular basis, Project HEAL began helping him on the case management aspect of his journey. Peterson was able to obtain identification information with the help of Project HEAL so he could get his driver's license. After this, Project HEAL was able to help him enroll and finance his education to pursue Nonprofit Management at Brookdale Community College. The team was also able to advocate on Peterson’s behalf with the parole office, as well as child services, so he could work towards visitation with his son.

Today, Peterson is focusing on keeping his head in the books and out of trouble. He dreams of starting his own non profit organization in an effort to give help to struggling kids. Having already applied for his nonprofit 501c3 status and partnered with a local church, he believes his calling to help others is not too far out of reach. “I'm 39 years old and I'm in school man, because of Project HEAL,” said Peterson. “I never thought I'd be in school. I feel like I'm doing something with my life, working towards my goals.” Peterson plans on continuing his participation in services at Project HEAL and will stay engaged with the organization as part of his support system to ensure his success in his journey.

Project HEAL Celebrates its First Full Year in Operation

Project HEAL Collage

In January of 2021, the final additions to the Project HEAL team were being finalized. Clinicians, nurses, peer recovery specialists and communications specialists were all being brought on board to round out the team. The groundwork had been laid since the summer of 2020, but it was not until the team was fully settled that the process could begin to move forward and the work could begin. While everybody coming on read the job description, understanding the progressive nature of the work and its application, would be a learning process along the way.

“To come into a new forward thinking program like this, and help the team build it from the ground up was really special,” said Content & Outreach Coordinator Chris Kuhn. “We prepped so much with training, procedures, and our branding, so when we finally opened our doors in March, we really hit the ground running.” The team engaged in 26 different training sessions to focus their approach and efforts in properly treating victims of violence. Logo development also took place, allowing the Project Heal team to become one of the only departments, within the health network, with a standalone logo. From the soft launch in March through the end of June, the team had served almost 50 clients, providing nearly 150 counseling sessions, introducing two new group programming tracks which were tailored to the needs identified by our clients.

Coinciding with the work being done inside the office, building the initial community connections was essential in creating meaningful and collaborative relationships with longstanding community groups. Project HEAL attended numerous community events, networking and building relationships in an effort to help facilitate the referral process and assist those in the community in dire need of trauma informed services. In addition to these events, Project HEAL was able to integrate itself within a collection of community groups which focus on preventing juvenile crime and promoting positive outcomes for youth.

Celebrating a full year in operation means so much to the staff, especially since the program is centered around such a new approach to treating victims of violence and rethinking public safety. As anyone in this line of work knows, it can be equally challenging and rewarding at the same time. “Just thinking about where we started and where we are now is very inspiring,'' said Randy Scales, Case Manager for Project HEAL. “It has been challenging, with long days and some sleepless nights, but in my heart, the most important part is that I enjoy giving the clients my all.” Project HEAL's most recently released Program Report shows that in its first year, it has served over 175 clients, provided more than 800e individual and group counseling sessions, and helped over a hundred clients with emergency financial assistance, health screenings, and referrals.

Project HEAL 2022 YTD

“I never thought we would be where we are within a year. It blows my mind that within a year, we've served 175 people when our initial projection was 65.” said Lisa McDermott Clinical Program Manager for Project HEAL, “not just serving that many people, but the connections that we've made within the community, within the hospital show we've backed up our word.” Project HEAL shows no signs of slowing down, as they were just recently awarded a new grant that will help them expand further into the community, reaching schools and affected youth. There is also a hope that with continued success, the program can expand across the health network and reach communities where this type of help is needed most.

As a sending off, Project HEAL leaves you with a heartfelt message from their founder, Dr.Aakash Shah, who is currently on sabbatical serving as a White House Fellow in the Biden Administration:

“I firmly believe that there is nothing more important than bringing your head, heart, and hands together to make a real, tangible difference in the life of another. In just its first year together, the team at Project HEAL has done that day in and day out for far more of our friends, families, and neighbors than we could have expected. I am excited about all the more it will do in the many years ahead.

New Grant Allows Project HEAL to Reach Further into the Community

Phil MurphyProject HEAL is happy to announce that they will be receiving a $500,000 grant to expand their services and enabling the team to access Monmouth County's at-risk youth, ages 13-20, and provide them with the holistic support needed to break the cycle of violence. “As we celebrate our one-year anniversary, Project HEAL will build even greater connections with local school districts and faith-based organizations to deploy Peer Specialists, who are local, young adults, impacted by violence, who can act as mentors to provide alternatives to violence.’’ said Lisa McDermott, Clinical Program manager for Project HEAL.

The grant money is part of $8.2 million in new funding for community-based violence intervention programs Governor Phil Murphy announced in February, the largest such investment in New Jersey history. Project HEAL was awarded the grant, along with 25 other recipients across the state.

This would not have been possible without the hard work of the Project HEAL team, the help of William Paterson University and their wonderful support system aiding in the application process, and the community groups in the area who wrote letters which advocated for the Project HEAL program to be awarded the grant. For this, Project HEAL thanks you, and will continue to do everything in its power to serve the people of the community and connect them with the help and resources they need.

National Crime Victims Week Event in Springwood Park in April

Victim Services Information Fair

Project HEAL is happy to announce their involvement in planning a locally focused event for National Crime Victims Rights Week, Friday, April 29th in Springwood Ave Park in Asbury Park NJ. This week is nationally recognized and dedicated to teach about victimization, show the effect victimization has on individuals, families, friends and the community, and to promote laws, policies, and programs to help victims of crime. Project HEAL has partnered with WeBuildNJ, The Asbury Park Kiwanis Club, and the Asbury Park Public Library to hold a resource centered event that will specifically connect community members with resources to aid them in their struggles with victimization. Project HEAL found that of the 5,819 victimizations that occurred in Monmouth County in 2020, only 294 people received victims of crime compensation as a result of their trauma, which accounted for only 5 percent.

The event will feature multiple community partners bringing tables stocked with information and resources, healthy living activities, local food vendors, trauma informed health screenings and keynote speakers, all ending with a candlelit vigil and a local choir to remember those who have been affected by violence. The event will start at 5:30pm in Springwood Ave Park and end at dusk. All community members are encouraged to attend to access resources for themselves, or others who have been affected by violent crime.

Meet the Staff: Project HEAL Program Manager Lisa McDermott

Lisa McDermottLike many in this line of work, a call to helping others can often be traced back to an early age. “I found at a young age that I was the kind of person who people would talk to,” said Lisa Mcdermott, Clinical Program Manager for Project HEAL, “a type of person who people would share their personal life with. So, very early on I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession.”

Growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey, just outside Paterson, McDermott was all too familiar with the needs of people in these affected communities. Setting out on her helping journey, McDermott attended Arizona State College, before transferring back home to William Paterson University to complete her undergraduate degree in social work. While at WPU, she had her first experience in program development, where she helped create a grant which funded on campus domestic and dating violence program. “It's where I first learned to build something out of nothing,” said Mcdermott, who became the victim services coordinator within the program, receiving referrals from students and staff in regards to on campus issues.

After completing her undergraduate studies, McDermott went on to pursue her Masters at Rutgers University. While there, she enrolled in an Addiction Counselor Training Program, which allowed only thirty students to participate, setting the groundwork for her career pursuits. Prior to graduation, McDermott interned at a men's residential substance abuse treatment program in the heart of Paterson, NJ. Post graduate, she was offered a full time position there. “I really connected with everybody there, all the patients,” said Mcdermott. “It was really rewarding, when you'd see somebody complete the program.” After her time in Paterson, Mcdermott accepted a position at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth NJ, where she spent 4 years as a clinician and another 2 as an Assistant Director.

In early 2020, McDermott was contacted by her old college professor, whom she had helped build her first program with at WPU, and was offered a position as Clinical Program Manager for Project HEAL. “I took a risk, I left a stable job to come start a grant funded program,” said Mcdermott. “It was a place I was unfamiliar with, a company where I didn't know anybody, it was a big leap of faith.” McDermott goes on to explain that after having a conversation with Project HEAL’s Medical Director and Founder, Dr.Aakash Shah, that she knew she made the right choice.

McDermott came on board in August 2020, and in coordination with Dr.Shah, built the program up brick by brick. Finding the right team to launch the program forward, navigating the pandemic, building connections, and finding office space. “It takes a long time to develop a program and lay the foundation in order to be successful.'' said McDermott, “We had the right support, the right environment, and the right team in place to get where we are today.” McDermott hopes to see Project HEAL expand its services across the entire health network of Hackensack, and with continued hard work and dedication, believes the program can get there.

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