Baird speaks at fundraiser for program that aids youth

Children's Center helps mentally ill, low-income young people

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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When Brian Baird was 12 years old and attending summer camp, he watched his older, fully clothed brother swim across a lake and start to tread water for five minutes — as per the camp’s swim challenge.

His brother went down, came up, went down again for longer, came up again and started crying for help. Baird, now 56, a clinical psychologist and a former Democratic congressman from Southwest Washington, remembers his feeling of helpless agony as he mistakenly thought his brother was drowning — while he couldn’t do a thing.

“If there’s nobody there to help you, you’d feel the way I did,” he said: Guilt and fear, anger and heartbreak. “That’s what parents of children with severe emotional disturbances feel,” he told several hundred people who turned out for a fundraising banquet put on by the Children’s Center, a Vancouver mental health clinic catering to poor children and families. Except, he added, that feeling is every single day.

And if somebody turns up to save the day, of course, you feel liberated and endlessly grateful. Twelve-year-old Baird didn’t notice an older, trained lifeguard hurrying out to save his brother until the job was done.

“When help arrives, it is beyond words just how valuable it is,” he said.

Baird was keynote speaker at the Children’s Center event at a time when caseloads are expanding and public health budgets are shrinking. Economic stress means personal and family stress, he pointed out. The Children’s Center serves 400 children per week and a total of 1,300 families per year, over 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to board member and Vancouver Public Schools associate principal Mike Stromme.

“We are absolutely at capacity,” Stromme said, with lunchrooms and other ancillary spaces being put to use so therapists can meet with clients. Meanwhile, he added, the Children’s Center is viewed as a leader around the state, with its system for measuring success admired and copied by other mental health clinics.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Stromme said, one in five young people are experiencing mental health problems at any given time, and two-thirds do not receive the help they need.

Rewarding, terrifying

Baird said parenting is “the most rewarding, humbling and terrifying experience of my life.” Deciding to have children, he said, is like deciding “to let your heart run around by itself, outside your body. What happens when those tiny little hearts run into trouble? Is there anything more frightening?”

So he approaches visits to the Children’s Center both as a parent, he said, and as an experienced clinician who worked in the field for 23 years (before being a congressman for 12). He’s always glad, he said, to find the place a “top quality” combination of caring and skill. Efficacy is the name of this game, he said, because “so much is at stake.”

Mental illness, he said, is not only potentially lethal, it also “saps life of all the beauty it can have.”

Baird said he figured everyone in the room must have at least one family member affected by mental illness. “We don’t talk about it very much. In Congress we had a big struggle to pass what we call mental health parity,” he said. That’s the principle that health insurance should treat mental health no differently than physical health. Why, he wondered, was life-threatening anorexia not covered by health insurance plans that did cover diabetes? Why was depression, a widespread, lethal and totally treatable condition, considered a lower priority than physical ailments?

“It was a long battle to get it passed, but pass it we did,” Baird said. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2008 as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But, he added, the law only helps people who have health insurance and places to go get help. The Children’s Center, he said, is there to take care of the ones who don’t.

Letters from home

“My life was falling apart, but I was in denial about it,” wrote one Children’s Center client in a letter read aloud during the banquet. Six advanced theater students from Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, plus drama teacher Judy Goff, were on hand to read the words of anonymous clients and their parents.

Smoking pot was killing his friendships and schoolwork, this writer noted; a therapist at the Children’s Center helped him face that fact and turn things around. “I am a happier person for it.”

“My grandparents are raising me,” another letter from a young man said. Mom is dead, Dad is gone. “I did have big tantrums,” sometimes bad enough for neighbors to call the police. “I wanted to stop feeling so mad all the time.” It was painful to dredge up all the bad stuff, but talking it out “felt so much better.” Mom’s death was not his fault, he was able to realize. Now, he added, “I don’t want to brag, but I’m star of the football team. I wouldn’t have been on the team, the way I was acting out.”

One young man’s sister was sexually abused by a family friend. “We should have known. We should have done something,” he said. The family stress was awful, he said, with Mom constantly in tears and his own anger nearly homicidal. It was a therapist at the Children’s Center who helped diffuse all the anger and sorrow. “She helped my sister get better,” he said.

If you’re interested in learning more or donating to The Children’s Center, visit http://thechildrenscenter.org. Development director Kim Hash said total proceeds from the fundraising banquet won’t be tallied for a few days. Meanwhile, it was also announced that the Children’s Center will host another fundraiser in the fall, called “Glamorous Gams” and focused on some of the hottest legs in the community. Beauties such as Gary Bock, Bart Hansen and Troy Van Dintner will stalk the runway. The event is set for Sept. 29.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.