When Thava Mahadevan met Don Doc two years ago, Don was living in a storage unit in Carrboro. For Don, who has PTSD, the storage unit was an upgrade. He had been living in the woods for four years.
The director of XDS, a nonprofit that provides health and wellness services for people with mental illness, Thava often does community outreach. He negotiated with the storage company to let Don stay in return for helping move people in and out of units. Over the next year, Thava secured Don an apartment and connected him with mental health services.
"Thava's had experiences himself that I can relate to, some hard times," says Don, who now makes wooden, engraved signs for a living. One is in the front window of Sutton's Drug Store in Chapel Hill. "I wouldn't be happy and stable without him. He's made a big impression on my life."
One of Don's signs is also at The Farm at Penny Lane, a 40-acre therapeutic center that Thava founded near Pittsboro. With grants, XDS bought the land and now provides day programs for adults with serious mental illness. Here they can recover through horticultural therapy and other programs.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Thava's work saves lives. North Carolina's underfunded mental health system is plagued with a shortage of services, especially for low-income people. People with mental illness often end up homeless, like Don.
Thava greets visitors at Penny Lane with a preponderance of energy. This is where he transforms his vision into reality: People in recovery grow dozens of crops in a large garden for the farmers market. Aquaponic tanks are full of water, awaiting a shipment of tilapia. Russian bees meander around two hives. An area has already been scoped out for a greenhouse and a chicken coop.
Because of poor health habits—smoking, malnutrition—persons with mental illness die, on average, 25 years sooner than people without.
"If you can't hold a job, you eat poorly," Thava explains. "This gets people outdoors and teaches them how to grow food, to eat healthy and earn a small income."
Connecting people to the earth through manual labor can be a powerful therapeutic method. "People realize, 'This is something I'm good at,'" says Ariel Reynolds, a second-year master's of social work student who interns at the farm. "On work days, we have clients and staff working side by side. No one knows who is who."
Thava plans to start a program for his clients to train assistance dogs. These dogs will be given to people who live alone or to those staying in nursing homes or undergoing treatment in cancer centers. The dogs will come from the Chatham County Animal Shelter, which euthanizes nearly two-thirds of its animals each year.
He's also securing grants and microloans for people like Don, who may not do well in traditional workplaces.
"We look at the gaps in the mental health system," Thava says.
Private insurance, Medicaid and Medicare do not generally pay for this kind of holistic therapy. A residential program in the North Carolina mountains that offers similar therapies costs $10,000—a month.
"This should be affordable to everybody," Thava says.
Penny Lane does not bill clients for its health and wellness services; those are supported by private in-kind donations and volunteers.
In 2011, XDS merged with the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, where Thava is now director of operations. The center provides medical and clinical services, while Thava is the go-to for community outreach.
"He has front-line know-how," says Dr. John Gilmore, director of the UNC center. "We can get people well. But how do we get them to having a life again?"
Thava himself had to rebuild his life. Born in Sri Lanka in 1966, he was 16 when an ethnic feud erupted in his country. One day, someone set Thava's house on fire, with his mother, father and brother inside. Everyone escaped the blaze by jumping from a second-floor balcony. A Chinese family took them in and sent them to India, where Thava and his brother lived alone on the streets. There, the Rama Krishna mission took them in.
In India, Thava graduated with a degree in zoology, and then came to Davidson College in North Carolina as part of a cultural exchange program, as a tabla player. From there, he moved to Boone with his wife and ran group homes for people with mental illness. He has a master's degree in rehabilitative counseling psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill.
"He has such positive energy," Gilmore says. "He can get people from all walks of life to sit together. He sees creative solutions in a messy world."
Those solutions come stepping outside of a sprawling health care system that is often hidebound and reluctant to innovate.
"We have cynics in mental health services," Thava says. "We have to move beyond that. We have to keep trying. Don't give up."
For more information about The Farm at Penny Lane, call 919-537-3818. Learn more about Don Doc's signs at madcowsigns.org.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A survivor helps others thrive."