Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition will profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day!

For this edition, we spoke with Nachshon Zohari, program manager for the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies (OBHS), part of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE). According to its website, OBHS “was created to ensure that (Denver’s) approach to mental wellbeing is connected, innovative and effective.” JVA wrote the application for DDPHE’s recently won $125,000 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Mental Health Awareness Training Grant, which Nachshon refers to in the interview.

1. Tell us about your organization and the social change you are trying to achieve.

“As far as the social change the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies is trying to achieve, the best way to explain it is we try to address what’s underneath the problem. Whether it’s criminal behavior, youth delinquency, substance misuse, suicide, there’s usually something underneath, driving it, that we need to wrap our heads, hearts and arms around. So we look at trauma, serious mental health issues—issues that underlie what folks are struggling with.”

“My role is in transition a little bit. I have been working with community and city agencies helping them become more knowledgeable and adept at mental health- related issues and creating policies and practices that would be considered best practices—for example, trauma-informed.

“I’ve started doing more community-based work, identifying some of the communities in our city that are at risk for issues like trauma—to really help them build up resiliency and the ability to face challenges. The city is in transition, and it’s putting a lot of pressure on a lot of people. We are trying to help so that communities can continue to be strong and vibrant.

“One example is I’m working with a homeless shelter, and they serve a population that has experienced a lot of trauma. I have trained their staff; now I’m working with them to implement best practices around trauma-informed care. So we’re trying not only to house or shelter people but to help them break out of the pattern of homelessness. There are lots of different barriers, but trauma is a very common theme that people who experience chronic homelessness have in their lives. A lot of times the trauma is a barrier to them accessing and breaking out of the substance abuse or chronic mental illness that keeps people out of housing. There are also challenges around housing and the cost of living, etc., in Denver, but my piece of it is trying to deal with those (mental and behavioral health) barriers.”

2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?

“The people. I’m a mental health therapist and have worked with many, many people in therapeutic relationships and in programs and agencies, and I am blown away by the people I meet. Ultimately, it’s about helping people one person at a time. I try just to remember the people benefitting from the work that we do.

3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?

“Patience. Nothing changes overnight. Just because it’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s going to work. And sometimes it takes a very long time… But at the same time, never be afraid to look to see if things are working, to offer some kind of change if things are not working to improve the situation.”

4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why? OR What book is on your to-read list and why?

“I do a lot of work around trauma and its impact, so I’ve been recommending ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’ by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s a very influential book detailing the impact of trauma on brains and bodies, and how trauma impacts many of the behaviors we do to try and cope with what we’ve been through. It’s good context to understand the impact of trauma.”

5. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization?

“We worked with Lisa at JVA on our latest grant. We just got that. It’s about training, helping people throughout the community—whether first responders, medical professionals, groups offering public assistance or nonprofits—understand mental health so they can help folks at a more root place.

“On three occasions now, JVA helped us write grants; I believe we got them all. I love working with JVA because they’re very professional and have a great skill set in terms of taking a lot of info from a lot of various sources and tying it together in a coherent way—and a successful way.”

Editor’s note: The SAMHSA Mental Health Awareness Training Grant will support DenverStrong: Building Resilience and Ending Stigma through Education, which will train individuals to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental disorders, teach them evidence-based crisis de-escalation techniques and educate them on area mental health providers so they can refer individuals to appropriate services. Those targeted for training include first responders; healthcare providers and lay staff who work in Denver’s safety-net hospital; veterans and veteran service providers; city employees; educators; community and faith-based leaders; recreation center staff; and child welfare-affiliated families and providers of childcare services and foster and kinship care.

Additionally, OBHS recently was awarded two grants from the state of Colorado in response to grant proposals written by JVA. The first was to pilot a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Denver, employing a partnership among OBHS, the District Attorney’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, law enforcement, case management providers, mental health/ substance use providers and many others. The other state grant was to expand on Denver’s current Co-Responder program, a model of criminal justice diversion that the state says: “partners law enforcement officers with behavioral health specialists to intervene on mental health-related calls. These two-person teams work to de-escalate situations by diverting individuals in crisis for immediate behavioral health assessments instead of arrest.”


Keep up with the area’s most inspiring changemakers—read JVA’s Changemakers blog!