Book of Dreams

Garden would provide therapeutic relief for adults with mental illness

Arthur Baleria, left, and Tarin Virgil, center, residents of Harmony House in Auburn, make lunch with volunteer Casey Davey last month. Harmony House, a group home for adults with mental illness, is asking the Book of Dreams for materials and supplies to start a garden.
Arthur Baleria, left, and Tarin Virgil, center, residents of Harmony House in Auburn, make lunch with volunteer Casey Davey last month. Harmony House, a group home for adults with mental illness, is asking the Book of Dreams for materials and supplies to start a garden. lsterling@sacbee.com

Tarin Virgil recalls first hearing voices in her head and hallucinating about imaginary people and objects when she was 10 years old. Since then, Virgil, now 19, has battled mental illness – a combination of psychosis and major depressive disorder.

For more than seven years, fear and shame kept Virgil from sharing her struggle with her parents, sister and close friends. She instead opted to silently cope alone.

“When you’re that young and you experience these things, it makes you feel different than all your friends,” she said. “I thought I was just weird.”

Virgil finally hit a breaking point in October, the anniversary of her mother’s death. The voices became increasingly focused on suicide. Virgil found herself in and out of the hospital, and the task of everyday living became unbearable.

Virgil knew she was no longer capable of managing her mental illness alone. Within days of seeking help, Virgil moved into Harmony House, a 15-bed residential treatment facility in Auburn.

Operated by Northern California agency Yolo Community Care Continuum, Harmony House is a voluntary program for Placer County adults with a range of chronic mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, major depression and, most commonly, schizophrenia. Its facility is a brightly decorated, eight-bedroom home near a variety of mental health and government services at Placer County Government Center.

With a staff of health care professionals, Harmony House seeks to move clients toward an increased level of independence.

“We’re a program that wants for our clients to feel at home and comfortable, but we also have a mindset of striving toward more,” said Erika Wang-Portillo, Harmony House program director. “The overall goal is that once (clients) leave the program, they will have a better quality of life.”

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Alongside staff, clients are encouraged to identify and implement effective coping mechanisms toward managing symptoms of mental illness. They are also taught integral life skills, including cooking, cleaning, laundry and medication management.

“We work with each resident as an individual person,” Wang-Portillo said. “There isn’t a cookie-cutter criteria that everyone has to fit into. Everything we do here is based on the individual’s personality, their symptoms and what they identify as their goals.”

During their stay, clients are also responsible for completing weekly chores, which are assigned based on individuals’ physical and cognitive ability levels. For those who express interest in pursuing jobs in the surrounding Auburn community, professional coaching and job training are available on site.

For Virgil, Harmony House has introduced her to a newfound love for cooking, journal writing and drawing – practical tools with an element of therapeutic relief in her day-to-day life. Virgil now experiences the symptoms of her psychosis at nearly half the frequency she did two months ago.

Harmony House hopes to expand its activities by instituting a small gardening program, in which residents would be responsible for growing produce of their choosing.

Book of Dreams readers have been asked to help purchase necessary supplies – including planter boxes, soil and irrigation supplies – to build a small garden in the facility’s backyard.

Produce grown there would be incorporated into daily meals in an effort to teach clients nutritious cooking skills and eating habits. The program would instill clients with a sense of contribution toward their Harmony House community.

“There is such a therapeutic aspect to gardening,” Wang-Portillo said. “I see it as a tool we are now going to have to refer clients to, to help with stress management and anxiety reduction.”

For Virgil, gardening holds more sentimental meaning, bringing her back to cherished memories of her mother, who lost her battle with breast cancer six years ago.

“When I was young, I used to garden all the time with my mom – we had a really beautiful garden with roses and all kinds of other flowers,” she said. “When I would have symptoms as a kid, I would go out to the garden and water or pull weeds. It would help me calm down.”

Brenna Lyles: 916-321-1083, @brennmlyles

The request

Needed: Funds to purchase gardening supplies for Harmony House in Auburn

Cost: $1,500

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