Joseph F. Berenato
Con-Vivir Wellness Hub welcomed
HAMMONTON—Con-Vivir Wellness Hub, an initiative of Allies in Caring, held their grand opening celebration from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 20 at their location at 100 S. Second St.
The occasion was marked with a craft table, live music, refreshments, building tours, speeches by several local dignitaries and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“I’m very excited. It’s really touching to see when people are rooting for you. It makes me cry that people care. My sister came from Washington, D.C. this morning, and my friends and other people came from North Jersey. That they are willing to take a ride and support this is great,” Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, the founder and CEO of Allies in Caring, told The Gazette.
According to their website, Con-Vivir Wellness Hub will “offer free and affordable in-person and virtual counseling as well as educational programs to foster resilience, promote healing and bring people together in meaningful interactions. Services will be available in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL).”
Benjamin Ott, the president of the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce, said that the concept was unique.
“It’s something that we don’t have. Wellness and health—we’ve always been a health-centric community, with blueberries and healthy eating options. This really gives us now a spot to gather that we didn’t have before: an open space where people can come and do healthy things, both physically and mentally. Everybody focuses on the physical, but this targets more on the mental aspects of health. It’s exciting to have—and Ivette’s a tremendous community leader and spokesperson for the organization. I’m super-excited that she’s seeing her dreams come to fruition,” Ott said.
Cassie Iacovelli, the executive director for MainStreet Hammonton, concurred, noting that it was “an exciting day.”
“It’s always great when you have a building that is empty, and somebody comes along and buys it—but to have it turn into a community center that encourages social gatherings, is responding to a much-needed audience of a variety of issues that people are needing to be addressed? It’s absolutely the best possible outcome. It’s an organization that wants to partner with many of the efforts that we do here in the downtown, so we couldn’t be happier. It’s great,” Iacovelli said.
Guillermo-McGahee told The Gazette that it was her hope that “people will feel welcome to come, and it will be easy for people to ask for help that they need.”
“I believe that everybody, if they get the nurturing support that they need, has talents and strengths that, sometimes, we don’t realize. When somebody extends a hand and helps you discover, and helps you heal, if you have experienced some trauma or difficulties in life, and helps you bring out your strengths and talents, that’s our hope. We hope that people will feel comfortable to come here; that they will know that this is a place that welcomes, that is compassionate, that we don’t judge, that we want everybody to succeed, that we want to provide the resources that we need. Sometimes, people don’t have information, or they don’t have experience or the connections to find a job, or maybe they feel they’re different and they don’t know if they’re understood by other people. We hope that this place is where you will find people like you, that you can relate to,” Guillermo-McGahee said.
Guillermo-McGahee, who emigrated from Mexico, said that, when one moves from another country, “you separate from your relatives and your friends—all your network of support.”
“Many of us find ourselves alone here, without support, and we hope that, for people like me—immigrants—or people who are different, that they will find, here, a place where they can create a new family or a new network for support ... I feel I want to give back. As much as people are giving to this, I just want to make sure that, whatever we are given, we pass it on, and people will benefit from this,” Guillermo-McGahee said.
The celebration included the presentation of a resolution to Con-Vivir Wellness Hub from Assemblyman John Armato (D-2) and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2).
Armato told The Gazette that he thought the concept of the wellness hub is “fantastic.”
“I think anything that has to do, in my estimation, with mental health is an asset to any city that it’s in—especially these times with COVID and the isolationism that goes along with it. I think this is a very excellent resource,” Armato said.
Before presenting the resolution, Mazzeo told the gathered crowd that, as a business owner, he is often approached by employees with “real life problems.”
“People have real problems with their children, with themselves, with money, whatever the reason is. It’s very difficult sometimes to navigate the challenges of real life. Having said that, it’s good to know there’s a place like Con-Vivir, to help people, particularly with mental illness. The biggest problem with mental illness, I think, is reaching out and saying, ‘I need help.’ When we can do that, and there’s a place where people can get help, then I think we become a better community. I think that we all share that—that we’re in this life together—and we want to make each other happy and prosperous in any way we can. I’m proud to be here,” Mazzeo said.
“With facilities like this, it is a great opportunity to reach out to those individuals who need our help,” Armato said.
Caren L. Fitzpatrick, the Commissioner-at-Large for Atlantic County (D), was also on hand for the celebration, and expressed her appreciation the hub was opening during Mental Health Awareness Month.
“Thank you for doing this. This is an important day for South Jersey, as access to affordable mental health services becomes a reality for so many of our neighbors who experience economic and language barriers to accessing care. This wellness hub will serve as a beacon of hope for those in need, as hope should never be limited by what language you speak, or the size of our paycheck,” Fitzpatrick said.
Councilmen Thomas Gribbin, Jonathan Oliva and William Olivo attended the grand opening, with Gribbin taking to the podium. Gribbin noted that the facility is not only a “beautiful building and place here in our community that will bring people together, the services that they provide are innumerable and very needed.”
“It helps to serve the underserved in our community, and brings our community together, though, especially in these times. We know that there are people struggling. We know that there are people that need resources and help, and it’s great to know that we have this resource for the people of Hammonton and for our South Jersey region. We want to thank you for the work, Ivette, that you and your team have done. It’s been a long journey, but we’re so grateful for the work that you do,” Gribbin said.
The next speaker for the occasion was Carlos Obrador Garrido, the Head Consul of Mexico in Philadelphia. Obrador Garrido said that it is a priority for the government of Mexico to work with community members to ensure the well-being of the community, particularly the Mexican community.
“But, in general, it is wonderful to witness that this center is open for everybody ... For the consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia, the Allies in Caring organization is a key partner that provides a wide range of social services, that promotes and fosters empowerment, and is a welcoming space that supports improvement of quality of life and well-being of all members of the community. I cannot stress enough that the partnership with Allies in Caring is a collaboration to assist the health, the well-being and mental health of the community,” Obrador Garrido said.
Sara Peña, the director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development with the N.J. Department of State, took to the podium following Obrador Garrido. She said that her organization is committed to “making real impact in people’s lives throughout the state of New Jersey—but, most importantly, in our Latinx community.”
“We know that in New Jersey, we represent the 20 percent of the population here, and that is the largest growing population in this great state. I am really excited and honored to be here with you, as we open access to quality health services for our people in Hammonton and, most importantly, in Atlantic County. So, thank you, Ivette, for your leadership. You’re an outstanding visionary leader,” Peña said.
The chairman of the board for Allies in Caring, Christopher O. Kosseff, served as the master of ceremonies for the occasion, and, while introducing Guillermo-McGahee, said that she is “a force to be reckoned with.”
“I thought I was peacefully enjoying my retirement until I got involved with Ivette, who hooked me in—and you just can’t say no to Ivette. I got more and more involved in Allies in Caring, and discovered more and more what a valuable organization Ivette has been building. I couldn’t say no to providing assistance of various kinds, and eventually became a board member and chair of the board,” Kosseff said.
Kosseff, who spent his career in behavioral health, said that one of the things that is most important to him is people having access to mental health services.
“This is absolutely critical. I think Ivette has done an absolutely amazing job of crafting a program that is complicated to put together because of funding issues, because of staffing issues, and she has pulled this together in the face of tremendous adversity. This provides an opportunity for people who need the support here in Hammonton and surrounding communities, to get support that is so absolutely critical ... Ivette has brought to Hammonton and this community support that many of the people would not have the support without her organization, people who are not fluent in English, people who do not have the resources to access traditional mental health services, now have a wonderful option to them,” Kosseff said.
When Guillermo-McGahee addressed the crowd, she said that they were there to celebrate “a vision, and the vision has to do with Con-Vivir.”
“‘Con vivir,’ in Spanish, means ‘living well together.’ We are here to celebrate this understanding that relationships matter. Relationships are the key for our well-being and health. Con-Vivir was borne out of nine years of experience, providing home-based behavioral health interventions for families who experienced a crisis or traumatic event, or with children with developmental disabilities ... I always thought about how we could help those families get the services they need before the crisis happens. How can we help these families when the crisis happens?” Guillermo-McGahee said.
Guillermo-McGahee said that more needs to be done to “promote health and prevent mental illness, and that is the purpose of this center.”
“This was conceived as a place where we will pay attention to building genuine relationships, because we believe that, when there is a genuine relationship, it makes a whole difference, and maybe all of us can relate to how much of a difference it makes in your life when you have someone that cares about you ... We hope that this will be a center for people where they will find other people that they can connect with, that will help them navigate challenges in life and that will help bring out the best that they have,” Guillermo-McGahee said.
New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver was also scheduled to participate in the event, but was unable to attend at the last minute. However, Oliver—who serves as the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs—offered her thoughts through an email that was sent to—and provided to The Gazette by— Diana Mendez, the public relations and communications manager for Allies in Caring.
“The grand opening of this new wellness center couldn’t come at a better time as people are experiencing increased mental stress and financial hardship due to the pandemic. It will help residents during this time of need and beyond. The holistic approach that Con-Vivir and Allies in Caring have taken to helping people creates a more resilient community where everyone can live, work and thrive,” Oliver said.
For more information about Con-Vivir Wellness Hub, visit alliesincaring.org/convivir-wellness-hub or call (609) 561-8400.