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Avita thrives during first year at Dawsonville location
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Avita Community Resource Coordinator Felicity Harrington gets her group of special needs clients get ready to go into the community to find volunteer opportunities. - photo by Jessica Taylor

It has been a year since Avita Community Partners opened its doors to the Dawsonville community, and the public agency has spent that time strengthening partnerships and building relationships with those it serves.

In the past year, Avita has served 518 individuals by providing assistance for those living with mental illness, addictive diseases and developmental disabilities.

“My passion is to see people improve their lives, and really our organization’s mission is to improve the quality of life of individuals with behavioral health and developmental disabilities,” said Chief Executive Officer Cindy Levi. “Personally, I get sheer joy out of seeing someone else succeed and improve their life. That’s what it’s all about.”

Through its many programs, Avita has been able to help people of all walks of life get the help they need. Whether through sessions with their full-time psychiatrist, a partnership with the Hall and Dawson accountability courts, the women’s treatment residential program to help mothers fighting substance abuse get back on their feet or community outreach for those with developmental disabilities, Avita is dedicated to its goal of helping others.

With 26 community service boards in 13 counties in Georgia, Avita, as an organization, serves approximately 13,000 individuals per year. Levi is hopeful to see some of Avita’s newest programs grow and flourish in north Georgia.

In 2015, the Apex program was established to offer grief counseling to students and currently has counselors in 27 schools across north Georgia. Levi hopes to see the program expand into elementary schools as the Children’s Commission on Mental Illness of Georgia identified the need for children’s mental health services.

Under Levi’s direction, Avita has also created the emerging adult program, Evolve, for people ages 16-26 to help young adults overcome the obstacles that come with living on their own, going to college, becoming more independent and finding out who they are. It’s also a pivotal time where many individuals in this age group will experience their first bout of depression or their first psychotic break.

While there is still a stigma against seeking help for mental illness, Levi said she has seen a slow shift in the past six years where mental health is being recognized. The stigma is something Levi and the Avita team has worked hard to overcome.

“It’s okay to ask for help,” said Levi. “Everyone at some time in their life needs to ask someone for help for different reasons. It really is okay to ask for help. Mental illness is an illness of the brain. The brain is part of the body. When we have the flu we don’t hesitate to go to the doctor to get treatment so why should it be any different if we’re suffering from say, depression or any other mental illness.”

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Avita Chief Executive Officer Cindy Levi with front desk receptionist Myra Rosa-Pacheco at Avita’s Dawsonville Center. - photo by Jessica Taylor

At a Rotary Club meeting last month, Levi presented a proposal for a suicide prevention program she hopes to implement at Avita and partner with the community.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers in the state of Georgia and it's usually a result of what Levi says is the “last straw effect,” where events and circumstances in one’s life compound on each other and eventually lead to suicide.

“We want to educate the community on risk and warning signs regarding suicide and protective factors. What can you do when someone has experienced events in their life in which they feel hopeless?” said Levi. “Avita wants to offer hope to everyone. We truly do believe that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is no problem that is that insurmountable that you can’t get over it.

“Sometimes people just can’t see past what they’re experiencing right now. We want to be that resource that’s available to them to help them through that time.”

The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program that originated in Colorado is what sparked Avita’s desire to establish their prevention program. The premise is to “be a link and save a life” and centers on three main objectives should you come in contact with someone who is suicidal: Stay with the person, listen and take them seriously and get or call for help immediately.

“We are hoping to implement (the program) across our 13 counties,” said Levi. “We are going to make it available to all of the schools, and we’ll be contacting all the schools to see if they’re interested in having this program presented both to their staff as well as the students.”

The program will begin with a presentation to school staff so that they are prepared and know what to do in case students speak up and ask for help.

 “Knowledge is power so when you understand kind of what people are experiencing and you can identify the risks and the warning signs then you can get the person help,” said Levi.

In its first year in Dawsonville, Avita has seen tremendous growth in its services and has no plans to slow down as Levi is constantly looking for new ways to help the community.

 “We’ll continue to expand as long as people need services,” said Levi.