Innovation at The Stonewall Project

At first glance, groups like “Outside In,” which is a walk-in discussion group for people who have been or are homeless, and “Mindfulness Lab,” which helps people apply compassion and clarity to their lives, may not seem like they belong to The Stonewall Project, the substance use program of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. But with an ever-evolving set of more than 20 weekly groups, and a structured process in place to ensure thoughtful change, Stonewall is designed to meet—and help address—the diverse set of challenges participants face. And innovative groups such as Outside In and Mindfulness Lab play a big role in how Stonewall is able to creatively help people reach their substance use goals.

Every four months, all of the Stonewall staff members meet for an all-day planning meeting to review the harm reduction philosophy and core values of the program, re-commit to Stonewall’s mission, problem solve current issues, and plan changes to improve service delivery. This past spring, Stonewall met at Strut, the new health and wellness center in the Castro, for the planning meeting.   

“There’s a kind of magic that happens when you bring everybody together in one space at one time,” said Glenn Ontiveros, MA, MFTI, a counselor for Stonewall. “There’s a recalibration, in a way. We talk about our vision, and our purpose. It’s definitely helpful and necessary to have these kinds of learning opportunities and trainings.”

“The planning meeting allows us to slow down for a day, to come together as a team, to reflect, to support each other, and to be really thoughtful about how we can make our program even better for our clients,” said Robert Holum, director of the clinical internship training program for Stonewall. “Everyone’s input is valued and taken seriously at the planning meeting, so it provides a great opportunity for team members to have their ideas and concerns heard. By taking time to plan and to recharge our batteries, we are able to do our very best work for our clients.”

“Primarily, we see ourselves as a living organization,” said Mike Discepola, MA, director of behavioral health services and The Stonewall Project. “As a living organization, we’re constantly changing and evolving to meet the needs of our participants.

This quarter, said Discepola, they decided to add an abstinence drop-in group to the roster, which so far has seen success. There are a variety of ways to measure to success, but primarily, “people vote with their feet,” he said. “If people are coming to a service, then it has meaning in some way.” Beyond attendance, Stonewall tracks the positive changes that clients make over time—which may include, but not be limited to changes in their substance use.

“Our participants may also do things like decrease their isolation, reduce their meth use, or manage how they drink in a more successful way.  Or, they may re-learn ways to communicate and advocate for themselves and their health needs through Stonewall services,” said Discepola.

One benefit of his team, said Discepola, is their diversity in terms of experience level, training, background and personalities—which sets the stage for innovation. “A lot of these programs have a different focus, clinical perspective and orientation. We have folks who work with us part-time, we have volunteer interns, and we have full-time staff. We have people from social work programs, family therapy programs and creative arts therapists. And this creates a richness, when we have various ways of thinking and solving problems.”

At the January planning meeting, Ontiveros presented an idea for a new expressive arts counseling group to be added.

“Expressive arts such as drawing, music, and movement may be used in counseling to help clients give voice to thoughts and feelings that are too difficult to put into words. This can bolster clients’ overall well-being, which can improve their ability to meet their substance use goals,” said Holum. After a demonstration of one of the group activities, and presentation of a complete week-by-week plan for the group, the group discussed whether to add the expressive arts group. “Everyone was impressed,” said Holum, “we had unanimous support for adding the group to our schedule. The group was a success, and it is now one of our regular offerings.”  

This quarter, Stonewall staff spent time reviewing the newer groups, including the expressive arts group that has been facilitated jointly by Ontiveros and Stonewall counselor Tiana Beard.

“I advocated for the group to continue another cycle, and I talked about why we started the group, how it’s doing, and changes we’d like to make to it next term,” said Ontiveros. With a steady group of attendees, the group is set to continue for another term.

This Spring, Stonewall was commended by the San Francisco Mental Health Board for excellence in service.  

“Sometimes, the changes that happen for people in our program happen slowly,” said Discepola. “But when we step back, and share the impact from the full program, it’s easy to see the dramatic changes we’re creating for people and the community.”

Pictured from left to right, Joe Hollendoner, Mike Discepola, Michael Siever and Robert Holum

Are you interested in making changes to how you manage alcohol and/or drug use in your life? Visit the program online or call 415-487-3100 to learn how you can connect with services.

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