Gemeinschaft Home's Newest Case Manager
At the end of 2022, Aaron Harris joined the Gemeinschaft Home team as a case manager, working with men enrolled in the residential program on Mt. Clinton Pike.
At age 56, Harris brings a range of life experience to the job, which gives him a unique perspective when engaging with program participants.
Born in upstate New York, Harris has lived all over the country, from his high school graduation during the mid-1980s in Miami, Florida to time spent on the west coast working in the restaurant industry in the San Francisco Bay area until the late 1990s.
Drug and alcohol use is rampant among many restaurant workers, owing to high stress environments and grueling hours, and Harris has struggled over the years with addiction.
He returned to upstate New York in the early 2000s to be near his family and to seek help for substance abuse.
After participating in a residential program at an ARC (Adult Rehabilitation Center), Harris began to focus on his future, first enrolling in community college courses in 2005 and later graduating with a degree in English and fine arts from Keuka College.
Harris says that his experience in the ARC program introduced him to the concept and importance of social work and community-based services for individuals in need, and he started to notice that “there are a lot of people in the world who either were not getting help they need or not enough.”
Harris also married and started a family during this period, and eventually relocated to Harrisonburg, Virginia to attend the Master of Fine Arts program at James Madison University.
He graduated in 2011 and remained in Virginia but continued to struggle periodically with addiction and eventually enrolled in a six-month residential program (ARC) offered by the he Salvation Army in Virginia Beach.
Harris’ experience in this program solidified his desire to pursue a career in human services, and he was hired by the Salvation Army to work for the program after he successfully completed it.
He spent several years working for the organization, starting out at the front desk, but later moving into positions of higher responsibility, which includes becoming a house manager and most recently the intake coordinator.
Because his family lives in Harrisonburg, Harris returned to the area to pursue his current position at Gemeinschaft Home and to be near his children.
As case manager, he draws from his own life experiences to engage with current participants and to offer a path forward without judgement. Harris’ philosophy is “Yeah, I have been there, but look at me now, I am proof that you can do it,” adding “We are not defined by our past. We are who we are now.”
He says the job brings many challenges but argues that “as long as you come in with a good level of sincerity,” success is possible.
During a ceremony on May 10, Gemeinschaft Home was one of two organizations awarded a $5,000 grant by undergraduate students at James Madison University. Under the guidance of Dr. Terry Fernsler, an adjunct professor in the Department of Social Work, students taking his Spring 2023 course in Grant writing for Agencies offered a call for proposals aimed at local area nonprofits to support their missions. Each participating nonprofit submitted a project idea and was then paired with students in the class to write a grant proposal to be judged and awarded by a committee of classmates.
Working with Gemeinschaft Home’s grant writer, Jennifer Jacovitch, juniors Kaitlyn Johnson and Samantha Dean, crafted a project that would establish a paid student internship position at Gemeinschaft Home who would facilitate a JMU-student-based volunteer and/or fundraising project for the organization. The project was awarded the grant along with the other winning grant project submitted by Skyline Literacy.
Gemeinschaft Home’s Veggie Garden
In the spring of 2022, a group of student volunteers from James Madison University constructed a small number of 18in x 36in boxes for planting vegetables. Coordinated by Jenna Piersol, from JMU’s Community Service-Learning unit, the students placed the boxes on stands located on the west-side porch at the men’s residence on Mt. Clinton Pike.
This spring, another group of students re-planted the boxes with a variety of vegetables, lettuces, and herbs that are used for cooking in the house. The vegetable garden provides another way for residents to learn about healthy living practices, and there are plans to construct vegetable boxes for the women’s residence soon.
Gemeinschaft Home’s garden sees major improvements this spring.
The 2020 Vision for the Future fundraising campaign established a therapy garden at Gemeinschaft Home, which was constructed during the fall of 2021, offering a peaceful space for program residents to enjoy nature in their own backyard.
Lined with paved and natural paths, benches, and variety of plant life, the Gemeinschaft serenity garden includes a view of the Alleghany mountains and surrounding farmland.
In May, thanks to the efforts of Kim and David Cassford of Shenandoah, the garden received some updates, including eight new hazelnut seedlings (donated by Burgundy Orchards, LLC), and a range of plants, shrubs, and grasses suited for different seasons and sunlight requirements.
Among them are irises, peonies, ferns, cone flowers, and hollyhocks.
Cassford was inspired to enhance the garden after she visited Gemeinschaft Home’s property on Mt. Clinton Pike for the first time in April.
She affirms that serenity gardens provide “a safe place that passes no judgement, a passive engagement activity that supports wellbeing and mental health, an automatic stress reducer, a place to quiet the mind, and enjoy the beauty of nature and its habitat.”
Kim Cassford worked on the garden at Gemeinschaft Home on three separate days, accompanied on various visits by her husband David, and her long-time friend, Alan Harpine.
At 94 years of age, Harpine is very involved in the community, managing a private vegetable garden, where he donates all the food to local individuals.
Cassford was assisted by Gemeinschaft residents and staff member Russell Smith, to decide where to plant each new item. Her neighbor, Quinton Garber, also donated birdhouses constructed from upcycled materials, to draw more birdlife to the garden.
Most of all, Cassford stresses the importance of “the dialogue and the conversation that came from being in the garden and the positive experience it gave the residents to have fun, enjoy, and just be.”
Cassford intends to keep working on the garden this summer, a remarkable contribution of both labor and materials that makes the experience of living and recovering at Gemeinschaft Home better for program participants.
Note: Kim Cassford is the Director of Resource Development at the Shenandoah Community Foundation and Co-Founder of Cassford Management LLC.