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40 Years at Interim: 8 Lessons Learned

By November 2, 2018 No Comments

In January 2019, I will have worked for Interim for 40 years.  I’ve learned many lessons in this time and have seen incredible change in the agency and in the community mental health system.

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.  Whenever possible, copy or learn from other successful programs and practices. Beg, borrow or buy to get the tools, models and answers you need.  

In my 40 years, I have done many projects for which I had no training.  I opened and operated the Sunflour Cookie Company, the agency’s first business where we trained mental health clients in work skills.  I also oversaw the development of approximately 20 affordable housing projects and treatment program facilities.   I learned to raise money and to read financial statements.   I was not trained to do any of these things by getting my Master’s in Social Work.  What I did learn, is that there are lots of volunteers, board members, and community members who are willing to lend time and expertise. I learned from their experience.   Luckily, I’m not shy about asking for help.   When Interim couldn’t get help for free, we hired experts. 

2. Listen to what consumers want. 

If we don’t listen to what they want, mental health consumers won’t use the services.  Even if people are homeless, they will not live in housing or locations where they don’t feel safe.   Interim runs focus groups and surveys consumers about their ideas.  Consumers look at housing plans and project designs to provide input. We have redesigned two housing projects after consumers provided feedback indicating the issues with the initial designs.   Consumers help to evaluate and hire staff and provide presentations to the Board of Directors.  We also have a Recovery Task Force, run by consumers, that provides feedback on the entire local mental health system.

3. Be a partner with your funders, not an adversary.   Whenever possible, handle your differences in private, and your agreements in public. 

I decided early on, that although I didn’t always agree with the Monterey County Mental Health Department (now Monterey County Behavioral Health), which was our major funder, I had to presume that we all had the same goals – improving the lives of people with mental illness by helping them move towards wellness and recovery.  We wanted to provide the best care in the least restrictive, and most cost- effective manner.   We didn’t always agree on how to get there, but it was better to pursue a path together.

4. Stick to your mission but keep analyzing community needs and evolve to meet those needs.

Interim is frequently asked to do things outside our mission.  We continue to develop new programs and services.  We analyze each request and opportunity to see if Interim has the expertise to undertake this task or program and if not, can we develop it.  We try to determine: Can Interim do this well?  Can someone else do it better?  Does it contribute to the community?  Sometimes we stretch to do things that are not quite within our usual mode of work.  For example, we opened a program at the Salinas Steinbeck Library and the First United Methodist Church of Salinas to help both work with homeless people who frequent these locations.  We are training library and church staff in ways to best serve these individuals, while also providing outreach and intervention directly with the homeless population.  This project was requested by City of Salinas.  At first, we didn’t consider it a good match, but decided to try it after researching an innovative model in San Francisco where social workers engage homeless people in the library.

5. Share knowledge and expertise with others

We have shared our housing expertise with many non-profits and Counties throughout the state.  I’ve given presentations on how to develop affordable housing for low income people with mental illness and have taught other agencies how to use community acceptance strategies to gain approval for affordable housing and treatment programs.  Interim can’t do it all so helping others to provide more programs and housing helps us to fulfill our mission.

6. Keep perspective on what is important.  

Things go wrong at Interim every day.  Although we work hard to prevent problems, every year we have floods from broken pipes, sewer back -ups, termites and about every type of infestation of bugs you can imagine.  When someone calls to tell me, “I have some bad news,” my first response is always, “Is anyone dead or injured?”  I figure that anything else is fixable.   We have a great staff and Board at Interim, and although they try to prevent bad things from happening, when it happens, they spring into action, taking care of the clients, the buildings, and the employees, all of whom may be impacted.  Safety is our first concern!  From our maintenance and administrative staff to our counselors, managers and Board, everyone knows what to do, to try to make it better when something does go wrong.

7. Share the work and share the glory.

The growth and success of Interim has taken the involvement and dedication of a large community of committed staff, board, volunteers, and mental health consumers as well as the faith and commitment of our funding sources and donors.  Give credit where credit is due.  Look for talented staff in the agency and help them develop more skills so they can advance.   Say thank you, frequently, to the staff, the donors, the board, the clients, the funders, and the community.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask.

I frequently embarrass my husband and children, by asking friends, relatives and strangers to support Interim with money, donated goods, or volunteering their time, skills and expertise. I ask people to bake, send money, sponsor events, act as the holiday elf, and provide IT Consultation.    I do this because I have seen firsthand how Interim can impact the lives of our clients as well as the community.  I feel fortunate that I have been able to work here for 40 years.  I have gained as much as I have given.  It has given my life purpose and direction.

To all of you who have joined with me, thank you for supporting Interim!  You have been a big part of our success and my ability to keep motivated and focused for 40 years.