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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Going Deep: Human Relations Program Focuses on Hope

“I wanted to know more about who I am, and figure out where I wanted to go,” says Jay Wood, a recent participant in Hartford Family Institute’s Human Relations Training Program.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Hartford Family Institute not only provides an array of counseling services to residents throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts, but also offers popular training programs, including the Human Relations Training Program (HRP).

“HRP is a way to learn and grow with others.  It is a complement to individual therapy,” explains Program Director
Donna Berman. “The program enables people and gives them the tools to get in touch with and take responsibility for their whole selves—the light and the shadow—and to experience what it feels like to have acceptance for all of who we are.”  

HRP uses the somatic wisdom of body-centered Gestalt therapy to help people understand and have compassion for themselves and, as a result, others. 

“The whole point of HRP is to contain what we feel, not to suppress it, and to live in our own bodies and experiences,” Berman says. “If I’m feeling angry, I can say, ‘wow I’m feeling angry,’ instead of acting it out on someone.” 

Berman, who spent just over 20 years in the program as a student, acknowledges that it changed her life. “It was like an earthquake,” she says. “Many long-held things I thought about myself got shaken to the ground. I felt liberated. To have the opportunity to share what I have learned and am continuing to learn, to help others along their way, is a true blessing.” 

HRP participants come from all walks of life and from throughout New England and parts of New York state. In some cases, people drive several hours to attend. Since the pandemic, sessions have been held online. While that has meant less driving, the sessions still deliver the same amount of deep connection and learning.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going in,” says participant Aaron Wartner. “I was unsure of sharing my darkest struggles with a group of strangers. In the end, I’ve discovered just the tip of the iceberg. It helped me go to a deeper level of understanding in all facets of my life: personal, my career, my family relationships, my friendships. I was able to examine parts of my past and to let the things holding me back go. And I had the support of the facilitator and the group.”  

Another participant, Cindie Caganello, agreed that the group format helps students grow with each other, and through that, grow yourself. "I developed bonds unlike anything before," she said. "It's like a light was turned on, and I became progressively more aware of the origins of my "issues"... but without any anger or blame, just awareness, clarity, hope. With that kind of knowledge comes the power to make positive changes."

Berman says, “The program is about teaching techniques that go inside, to make room for our feelings. Ultimately this is the only way find true peace. It is a way of knowing ourselves, feeling safe and being honest with ourselves and others. As soon as you are allowed to admit anything, you make room in yourself and bring acceptance to it, and the group helps you know that. It’s about being awake about how we feel and what we need.”   

The HRP format begins with a kick-off weekend, which will be held September 26 and 27 this year. From then on, classes meet every Wednesday starting at 5:30 with a lecture from one of Hartford Family Institute’s partners. The lectures focus on a range of topics, such as the basics of body-centered gestalt therapy, including the various character structures, the significance of dreams, “victimizers” (like the negative voices in our heads) and more.  For each 90-minute lecture, the HRP participants are joined by students from the Professional Training Program (developed specifically for therapists). After the lecture, there is a 30-minute break, and then students meet in their small groups of eight to 10 people for 90 minutes of discussion, therapy and mindfulness exercises.

Students also have the opportunity to choose from two weekend intensive workshops.  The topics range from Animal Imagery and Healing Physical Pain to Bonding and Attachment.  

“At Hartford Family Institute, we talk a lot about recognizing our defensive systems,” says Berman. “We come by them legitimately. We develop this armor to protect ourselves, especially during childhood. When we grow up, we forget that we are wearing the armor. Then as adults, we inadvertently keep people out because we can’t get past our armor. Inside we are someone who wants to connect.”  

Stuart Alpert, PsyD, LCSW, and wife Naomi Lubin-Alpert, PsyD, LMFT, the founders of Hartford Family Institute, sought to “create a unique place of warmth and welcoming,” says Alpert. Together, they developed Body-Centered Psychotherapy, a combination of in-depth body emotional work, energy healing, shamanic spiritual healing and trauma work.

Several years later they were joined by partners Donna R. Baker-Gilroy, PsyD,LPC, David Gilroy, PsyD, LPC, and Sylvia Gingras-Baker, MA, LMFT. Together, they have several publications, including Alpert’s Roads Back In Time, Seeing The Invisible and Healing The Impossible, and Transforming Relationships: Come As You Are by Gilroy and Baker-Gilroy. The partners have also lectured widely, including throughout the Northeast, and conduct workshops in various places including Kansas City, Santa Fe, and Germany.

Located in West Hartford, Hartford Family Institute has four associates in addition to 14 independent practitioners. “We’re thrilled to be celebrating 50 years of helping people to a better place,” says Alpert.  He estimates that over 5,000 people have been a part of the HFI family over the years.

“Our professional programs are a cornerstone of the entire practice,” added Alpert.  “We see many of our individual clients ‘graduate’ to the training program. We find that our students learn deeper self-acceptance, find greater meaning and purpose in life, clear old patterns and beliefs that are no longer useful, and develop stronger bonds with others.”

Organizers are hopeful that the 2020-2021 program will, at some point, return to in-person meetings, but for now, the beginning of the year will be on Zoom. 

According to Berman, “Whether in person or on Zoom, HRP is a rare opportunity to enrich your life, make deep connections with yourself and with others, to flourish and to blossom into the fullness of your own unique self.” 

For more information about the Human Relations Training Program at Hartford Family Institute, visit A free introductory session will take place on September 9 at 7pm. See ad, page 20.

Hartford Family Institute - West Hartford CT

Hartford Family Institute - West Hartford, CT

Hartford Family Institute (HFI) has been a cutting edge Psychotherapy and Training Center since 1969. The Psychotherapy created and practiced here is a combination of in-depth body emotio... Read More »

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