Have you seen any of the three signs at the entrances to Jefferson Township from Route 15 and Berkshire Valley Road and also at the Jefferson Township Municipal Building that read “Jefferson is a Stigma Free Town”?  Have you wondered what they were or what they meant?

Well, it is one of the visual signs endorsed by Jefferson Township CONNECT – a mental health project formed several years ago following the loss of several individuals in the Jefferson Township Community who took their own lives in 2009.  These tragic suicides made it clear that there was an immediate need to raise awareness about mental illness in the community while providing education about mental illness, encouraging wellness, helping with recovery, and connecting people through support and resources.

JT CONNECT was founded by current Jefferson Township Council President Debi Merz, Milton United Methodist Church Pastor Ellen Bechtold, and Jefferson Township’s Community Health Educator Kristine Wilsusen.

The framework for the group was started in 2010 when these three women met with Celina Gray, Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma to help define a mission statement and direction for the group.  The group was initially known as the Jefferson Township Mental Health Project but was re-branded in 2012 as JT CONNECT, signifying the need to “connect” the community by raising awareness about mental health, erasing stigma and providing acceptance and support so people would be willing to reach out for help.

As a non-profit organization, JT CONNECT is supported by the Jefferson Township Municipal Alliance Committee which provided the original “seed money” to start the CONNECT mission.  In October of 2014, the Junior Woman’s Club of Jefferson Township donated the funds from their 16th annual Wrobro 5K Run to CONNECT, and these donations really propelled CONNECT to be able to extend the number of programs it could provide to the community.

Just recently, JT CONNECT was the beneficiary of funds raised by a concert at Jefferson Township High School. “An Evening of Hope In Memory of Chad Breitz”, a recent JTHS graduate, featured the Jefferson Township High School Wind Ensemble and Chamber Choir and The Impact Band, a student ministry of Jacksonville Chapel in Lincoln Park, which is the Breitz family’s home congregation. These talented musicians helped to transform the heartbreak of Chad’s recent death by his own hand into hope for the future through the power of music.  JT CONNECT has promised the Breitz family to use the funds to help the Jefferson Township community through education and hope for those struggling. (Note:  A story about the concert appeared in The Jefferson Chronicle in early May — http://www.thejeffersonchronicle.com/memorial-concert-turns-heartbreak-into-hope/

On May 3, 2017, Jefferson Township Mayor Russ Felter declared the month of May to be Mental Health Month.  He presented JT CONNECT with a Jefferson Township Proclamation at the Township Council meeting and encouraged citizens, government agencies, public and private institutions, businesses, and schools to recommit to increasing awareness and understanding of mental health, the steps citizens can take to protect their mental health, and the need for appropriate and accessible services for all people with mental illnesses at all stages.

Over the past few months alone, JT CONNECT has sponsored numerous community events including a two-night Mental Health First Aid Course, a Hike for Hope at Camp Jefferson, yoga sessions, and a discussion on Breaking the Silence of Postpartum Depression.  JT CONNECT encouraged community and school participation in the Connect 2B Kind movement in honor of National Random Acts of Kindness Day, offered the public An Hour of Relaxation session, and sponsored a Post-traumatic Stress Disorder presentation.

Each holiday season after the Jefferson Arts Committee’s Christmas in the Village day time event, CONNECT hosts an annual Light a Luminary event at the Jefferson Township Gazebo in the Municipal Complex where residents and friends gather together to remember loved ones lost and support each other as a community.

CONNECT continues its work to break down barriers and stigma surrounding mental illness by making a positive impact on the community through education and helping those in need.  Community members from all backgrounds as well as organizations are continually sought to partner with and be part of this ongoing effort.  If interested, please contact JT CONNECT for information on becoming a volunteer or to participate in one of their many programs.

Meetings are usually held on the first Monday of each month at the Jefferson Township Municipal Building, 1033 Weldon Road, Oak Ridge.  The next meeting is on June 5 at 7 pm and a schedule of meetings can be found on the group’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/jeffersonTownshipCONNECT

CONNECT members believe that together with the community, they can

      • achieve greater results
      • break down barriers
      • promote positive reinforcement
      • discover solutions
      • make an impact in the community
      • educate one another
      • help those in need
      • make a difference

For more information and to follow the activities of Jefferson Township CONNECT:
Instagram @JeffersonTownshipCONNECT

So, in the future, you’ll now know what those Stigma Free signs mean — they signify that individuals with mental illness can find acceptance and support within the Jefferson Township community.

Graphic: Carol Punturieri


    • JT CONNECT is NOT a support group. It is an organization whose volunteer members provide educational information and materials for those in need. If you are in need of a support group, they can help you find the one that is right for you.
    • If you or someone you know is in need of immediate help or feeling suicidal, please call 9-1-1 immediately.
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
    • Are you or someone you know struggling? Call 800.273.TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741-741

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Carol was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Jefferson Township with her husband in 1976. She initially joined the Garden Club of Milton, eventually serving as President. She was a co-founder of the ABC Mothers Group, active in the local PTAs, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts. She worked for AIM Newspapers as a reporter and eventually became its Editor. Currently, she is President of the Jefferson Arts Committee and recently retired as the Recreation Program Coordinator in the Jefferson Township Recreation Department. She can be reached at carol.punturieri@thejeffersonchronicle.com.