There’s a place nestled within Hartford’s south end where holistic health meets mental health. Toivo, meaning hope in Finnish, exists as open space inside a store front where healing magic begins. No one is turned away because of race, age, religion, culture, sexual orientation and income level. Mental health diagnosis labels do not matter here and one can participate whether one has a diagnosis or not. “Meditation and yoga are for everyone,” said Hilary Bryant, yoga instructor and Holistic Health coordinator at Toivo.
Toivo is a project of Advocacy Unlimited, an organization started in 1994 to provide education programs about advocacy for people with mental illness.
“This is about breaking barriers having people separated from each other come together and heal,” said Linda Lentini, general manager at Advocacy Unlimited.
Lentini facillitates programs at the Toivo center as well as on inpatient psych units.
“A lot of people have never been introduced to mind/body practices simply because of limited funds,” she said.
Through funding from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), Lentini brings mind/body practices to two psych units in Hartford and Bridgeport for about one hour a session. When patients are released, they can come to Toivo and continue if they want.
The Toivo center on Franklin avenue offers workshops and classes in meditation, yoga, nutrition, fitness, walking/running groups, support groups, writing, aromatherapy, qi gong, chair yoga, Zumba, and a Sydan circle. The Hearing Voices Network meets regularly in their space too.
Trained in aromatherapy and healing trauma, Lentini offers two workshops at Toivo. One is on beyond anger and violence and the other is based on author Brene Brown’s book the Gift of Imperfection. In April, she’ll be trained by Louise Hay in a You can Heal your Life workshop and will soon be able to offer this to people.
Toivo was founded by Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited. Drumm saw a world where mental health consumers received services but were dying 25 years younger than others because of weight gain, diabetes, and medication side effects.
“He wanted people to take ownership and learn ways to heal themselves,” said Kelvin Young, director of Toivo.
At first, the center started out small with one or two in the classes but word of mouth grew the classes to 15 participants and more. Young and Bryant presented Toivo at health fairs, mental health organizations, community organizations and on social media. This helped grow the idea for Toivo as a healing space.
“Toivo gives people the tools they need to utilize when they are in emotional distress,” said Young.
Bryant said “There is a shift in the mental health system in Connecticut where people need the holistic approach. We need to do more. It is important people take responsibility to engage minds and nourish souls.”
The neat part of Toivo is everyone who works for Toivo connects with the people attending classes through their own shared experiences.
Bryant spent her teen years in “a state of deep sadness and lack of self-love”. She was in and out of psych units, halfway houses, and outpatient programs struggling with an eating disorder and self-harm issues. After multiple suicide attempts, things shifted and she found yoga.
“The challenge for me is to quiet my mind and be in my body,” Bryant said.
Young came to Toivo from a different perspective. His experience of depression and anxiety caused him to reach out to substances including cocaine and heroin.
“I dropped out of high school, was arrested, was on probation and in and out of treatment,” said Young.
Young went to prison four times. It was his last time in prison that he made the choice to change. He was a father of a daughter now and getting older and did not want to show her this kind of life. He learned about the transformative powers of meditation and yoga and gave it a try. He came out and wanted to give back what he had learned. That’s why he’s now director of Toivo.
Toivo’s classes suggest a $5 donation, but one can pay what they can or nothing at all. To find out more about Toivo Center, click www.toivocenter.org.