By David Liebler.
At the junction of Highways 120 and 6 in eastern Mono County — 37 miles from Bishop and 51 from Lee Vining — sits the isolated, rural community of Benton. There is little evidence left of Benton’s rich mining history. The town is now home to either 164 or 282 residents — depending on which state sign you believe when you enter the town. The Benton Paiute Reservation is just a few miles away. The surrounding region, sitting more than 5,700 feet above sea level under the towering Mt. Montgomery, is desolate yet beautiful.
For those accustomed to the hustle and bustle of city life, the silence can be almost frightening. You have to be a special type of person to live in this community that has a long history of both poverty and resilience.
Frankly, it’s easy to overlook Benton. But not for the Mono County Behavioral Health staff. Department Director Robin Roberts and her team accepted the challenge to see what they could do to engage residents living in desolate, outlying areas. They asked: How do we best get to know these residents – and perhaps more importantly, provide them the opportunity to get to know us? How do we break down the stereotypes people have of government? How do we provide them with the services desperately needed by people who are apprehensive to come forward?
The residents of Benton can be slow to trust; most live out there for a reason. There is also a reported ongoing alcohol and substance abuse problem in the community – much due to the fact that there is simply not much to do. As one resident simply put it, if you don’t like fishing, there is nothing.
And so in 2013 the Behavioral Health staff traveled to Benton to get input from community residents on what type of activity the community needed. The answer was a regular event that featured food, activities an opportunity for the community to come together. Thus was born a social event that has carried on to this day – and it’s the only game in town.
Each month the Behavioral Health staff provides the main course and entertainment; the community brings potluck dishes. The cost to the county? About $100 a month of Prop. 63 funds, as well as some staff time. The last Friday of the month was decided upon because it’s when some of the residents could really use a hot meal.
“This is the only event we can say that the whole community can get involved. This is it,” community member Cristina Marquez said. “If it wasn’t for (the County), we would have nothing.”
These monthly affairs not only brought community members together, but allowed them to see Behavioral Health staff as … well… people.
Marquez sums up the sentiment of many resident: “They don’t act like ‘government.’ They are just ordinary people trying to help.”
In September, “the Benton Social” as it is called featured Asian wraps for dinner and the Disney film Zootopia for entertainment. But while dinner and a movie are on the agenda, the success comes from the discussion and breaking down of barriers. As local Pastor Jim Copeland says, it’s the talk over dinner that can make a difference.
“Getting them to get to know people in casual, friendly, supportive way allowed them to feel some trust and comfort and allowed them to open up a little bit about other things bothering them, “explained Ellen Thompson, Ph.D., a retired Behavioral Health psychologist who lives in Benton. “Shortly after we started doing these out here, my caseload skyrocketed.”
Attendance at the monthly social can vary, but the building of relationships continues to grow.
“We have relationships with people based on us being here to provide the community with an opportunity, not coming out here looking for people that might not behavioral health services,” Roberts said. “It’s not about having an issue; it’s more about feeling that we are approachable.”
Case Manager Salvador Montanez is the staff member who makes the events happen each month. “It really pays off to spend time with the community, let them know who you are and let them come to their own terms on whether they might benefit from some of the other programs and services we provide.”
Breaking down barriers, building relationships; it’s working in rural Mono County.