Employee Spotlight: Mental health advocate Sandi Kolla retiring after four decades

Working in mental health can be a stressful job, between clients in crisis, workforce shortages, burnout, and salaries that can lag behind those in other less-demanding careers. Consequently, it’s a profession with turnover rates that can climb as high as 70 percent, by some estimates.

That makes Sandi Kolla unusual in her field. Kolla has worked in mental health at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton for 40 years. She’s the director of the Partial Care Program, an intensive outpatient program at Delaware House in Burlington County that provides psychiatric rehabilitation groups and activities for adults with mental illness and/or addiction.

Her cheerful smile and friendly personality are as steady a presence there as the Rancocas Creek that burbles by less than 2 miles away. But this week, Sandi will retire. Of Catholic Charities’ current 700-plus employees, only two other staffers have been here longer than her.

We sat down with Sandi to look back on her career and learn what’s in store for her next.

Mental health advocate

Q: Forty years! Have you ever worked anywhere else?

Kolla: Other than a brief stint in real estate, my whole career has basically been in the mental health field. I started at the Bensalem Community Mental Health Center before moving to Delaware House in 1978. During the time that I worked at Delaware House, I married the love of my life, had two wonderful sons, and now have 5 beautiful grandchildren.  I am a very fortunate person to have been surrounded by loving family and friends all of these years.

Q: What is it about mental health work that made you stay for four decades?

Dedication, compassion, and enthusiasm

Kolla: It certainly has been a privilege to provide services to those with mental illness. To see their strength and courage in the face of adversity has always been an inspiration. Consumers present with a myriad of complex issues, so the work is very challenging. I have found that even though the philosophy of mental health treatment has changed over the years, the basic underpinnings remain the same: It takes dedication, compassion, and enthusiasm to affect change. And seeing consumers change and progress toward their goals is very rewarding.

Q: What sticks with you most?

Kolla: One of the most impactful things I experienced working at Delaware House was being part of the Catholic Charities Emergency Response Team immediately following the 9/11 crisis.  For several weeks afterward, we were set up at Liberty Island National Park to provide support and referrals for services to those affected by this tragedy.  At one point, we were with a group that ferried family and loved ones over to Ground Zero, and the sadness was palpable.  But all of the volunteers and workers, from FEMA to the Red Cross, just to name a few, made such an impact on me. They were incredibly kind and generous people from all walks of life from all over the country. They worked tirelessly to help those in crisis and continually made sure that other caregivers also were taken care of. It all-in-all was a very heartrending experience.

A world wanderer

Q: How do you decompress after work?

Kolla: Traveling adventures have always been one of my pleasures in life. I’ve biked down Mt. Haleakala in Maui – 10,000 feet! I rode ATVs through the tropical landscapes of the island of Hawaii. I biked through small towns in Mexico, zip-lined through tropical rainforests in St. Lucia, snorkeled in the Caribbean, went deep-sea fishing in Key West, skied in the Poconos and New England, and toured many cities in the U.S. and Europe. I spent more time in Italy because of my family ties there. Still, some of my most favorite times have been right here at the Jersey Shore.

Q: That sounds like a lot of adventures! Have you ever had any misadventures?

Kolla: Oh sure! Towards the end of a long, 30-mile bike ride along the Delaware River canal, I ended up in the canal! I was trying to turn on the gravel path and started to lose my balance. So I veered to the grassy area – not realizing it was a steep incline. So I ended up totally in the canal, bike and all!

Q: Any big plans for retirement?

Kolla: I am truly a very lucky and blessed person to have had this amazing career surrounded by amazing people. Still, I look forward to the next chapter of my life. I plan to do more traveling and join a book club – I love mystery novels! I hope to do more biking and cooking. And I also plan to spend more time with my grandkids and summers at the beach, work with the League of Women voters, and maybe become a volunteer for FEMA or the Red Cross. I am always interested in new adventures!

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For more information: Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1153.

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