Carmel Pine Cone
Great Lives Column – Elaine Hesser – February 9, 2018
IF YOU can’t hear the passion for the mentally ill and homeless people she serves in Barbara Mitchell’s voice, you’re just not listening.
The Executive Director of Interim, Inc. has spent her life trying to make others’ more livable. The nonprofit agency’s mission is “to provide services and affordable housing supporting members of our community with mental illness in building productive and satisfying lives.” It was founded in 1975 to help patients in mental hospitals handle the transition as California began closing its state institutions.
Mitchell described that change as humane and cost effective. She said that people who had been institutionalized didn’t really need to be. They were not a danger to themselves or others.
She also said that most had no families to return to and many had spent their adult lives in a locked facility. They returned to the community and often moved into privately run “board and care homes,” which she said provided “room, board, care and supervision for adults.” She noted that while they were not locked, they were often run-down.
Meanwhile, the former patients needed help to develop fundamental skills for everyday life. Mitchell said many didn’t know how to handle money, take public transportation or in some cases, even use a telephone.
Sunflour Bake Shop
While Interim was in its early days as a halfway house in Monterey with 12 beds, Mitchell moved here with her husband, Bill Pardue, who had a job as a social worker with the San Andreas Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled in the San Jose area.
She worked for Monterey County as a psychiatric social worker until 1979, when she left her job there to start working at Interim, establishing its vocational training service.
They decided to open an in-house business. There, they could teach people the basics of the world of work, like dressing appropriately and showing up on time, and then “graduating” to a job at an outside company, making room for someone else.
Sunflour Bake Shop and Cookie Company had a pretty fair run from 1980 to 1984. “We sold about $10,000 a month worth of cookies,” said Mitchell, “but profit margins were virtually non-existent.” A bigger problem was that nobody ever wanted to leave or work anywhere else.
“People loved working in that bakery,” she recalled.
In 1984, Mitchell became the Executive Director and, in 1985, the agency sold the bakery, but continued to help clients find employment and educational opportunities. Mitchell’s proud of the way the organization has grown, relying on a combination of taxpayer dollars, private donations and grants. It has 200 housing units (which can be one bedroom leased in a home, or a studio or apartment) and a total of 20 locations that also include treatment and services for people with a wide variety of mental illnesses.
She said it’s become a model for other cities, because any decision the people at Interim make has to benefit both their clients and the community. Mitchell’s quick to point out that the housing where her clients live is usually the cleanest and quietest in any neighborhood.
And, since 2000, she has served on the California Behavioral Health Planning Council, a 40-member group appointed by the state to advise governmental bodies on mental health services.
Ask how she came to spend nearly four decades helping others improve their lives, and you quickly find her apple didn’t fall far from the family tree. Her parents were very socially and politically active in Los Angeles during the 1960s.
Friends and family
Her father worked on Tom Bradley’s first mayoral campaign in Los Angeles, and at one point, her mother was simultaneously the Democratic party volunteer of the year for West Hollywood and for Los Angeles County.
Mitchell marched in her first protest at 13. “It was the 1964 Artists Against the War march,” she recalled. At that same age, she became a counselor — at a day camp. She worked at a series of day and overnight camps throughout her teens.
As an anthropology major at Berkeley, she thought she would be a teacher on an Indian reservation, and took coursework to learn the notoriously difficult Navajo language.
After a three-month stay on a Navajo reservation, however, she realized she would have to become far more fluent in order to make a real difference. “It wasn’t a good fit,” she said. She decided to earn her master’s in social work at San Diego State, providing counseling in a veterans clinic along the way.
She and her husband raised two children who are now adults, and Mitchell wanted to note that she’s proud of her older sister, Wendy Mitchell, who is a renowned pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Mitchell’s Carmel Knolls home harbors a four-month-old rescue dog of indeterminate breed, named Amber.
For fun, Mitchell belongs to a group of eight food lovers who meet periodically to create and serve one another themed meals. She said the worst one was tomato-themed and suffice it to say, there was a questionable dessert involved. Mitchell also mentioned that she once had to prepare an appetizer from a cuisine she’d never experienced — Indonesian. “I didn’t even know what it was supposed to be. It came out terrible,” she laughed.