Wellness Project earns national recognition

Free, volunteer-based mental health clinic honored for partnerships, innovation

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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The Wellness Project

What: A free mental health clinic for uninsured and underinsured adults in Clark County

Offering: Individual counseling as well as groups for men, women, anger management, coping skills and more

Where: 317 East 39th Street

Sign up: The first Wednesday of the month, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Regular hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays

Call: 360-546-1722

On the Web: Community Services Northwest

The Wellness Project is doing very well, but wants to become more well-known.

This should help: Vancouver's free community mental health clinic, unique in all of Washington state, just won nationwide recognition from The Mutual of America Foundation, a charitable wing of the Mutual of America Life Insurance Co. On Thursday, officials from Mutual of America, based in New York City, convened a luncheon at the Heathman Lodge to honor The Wellness Project and Community Services Northwest, the nonprofit agency that operates it.

Community Services Northwest is based in a low white building at the corner of Main and East 39th streets that has become "an iconic symbol of hope for people in need," said program manager Denise Stone. But benefactor Jan Oliva, who helped buy the building for the agency a decade ago, said she attended a function for a sister mental health agency earlier this week where she talked up The Wellness Project — "and nobody knows there is a free mental health clinic here. We need to let people in Vancouver and Clark County know."

The Wellness Project was one of "hundreds and hundreds" of community nonprofits that applied for the Mutual of America Foundation's Community Partnership Award, according to CEO and chairman Thomas Gilliam. His vice-chairman, Ted Herman, said a site visit to The Wellness Project "was one of the most interesting site visits we've ever had," across 17 years and 170 such visits.

"I let the cat out of the bag" during that visit said Herman, who said he told The Wellness Project personnel: "You guys are a winner. This organization does it right. It is much different than any other we looked at."

The winning formula is a mental health clinic that enlists diverse partners from all around the region who provide mental health services for uninsured people — often destitute and homeless — that is equal in quality of the services provided to people who can pay or have Medicaid, the federal program providing health care for the poor.

Those partners include professional counselors who volunteer their time, often after a full day of regular counseling practice. They also include master's-level counseling students who work under the supervision of those professional volunteers or other staff. The students come from schools including George Fox University, Multnomah University, Western Seminary, Lewis and Clark College, Capella University, Portland State University, Argosy University and Eastern Washington University.

All that professional-level volunteer help means The Wellness Project can serve, for not much money, a population that doesn't usually have the resources — or the courage — to seek help. "Their symptoms often keep them from seeking help," said Sharon Krupski, the longtime executive director, who stepped down in February after seven years. But The Wellness Project is a "painless, non-threatening" place they can go, she said.

The whole design is also replicable, said Herman, which was one of its winning qualities. Mutual of America winners are supposed to be "partnerships that are unique, creative, innovative, solving a demonstrated community need, and can be replicated. The Wellness Project is a model project," Herman said.

If there was a Wellness Project in every county in Washington State, Krupski figured, something like 10,000 poor people would get mental health services in an early, timely way, and 500 of those could be diverted from the emergency room, jail or worse.

"We would love to see it replicated," Krupski. "This will provide a little leverage."

She was talking about a $20,000 gift for The Wellness Project that Mutual of America announced at the event. It was unexpected, Stone said.

Stone said there is a grand total of approximately 1.9 full-time-equivalent positions at The Wellness Project. According to its 2011 annual report, 283 different clients were served and 7,421 hours of service were donated that year. She said the building at 317 E. 39th Street was built in the 1920s and has benefited from the donated or extremely affordable services of architect Randy Salisbury, who helped with renovations; she also honored the late Abe Perlstein, who died in February. Perlstein was a dedicated volunteer with The Wellness Project who used to work there after spending his working day at Columbia River Mental Health.

"He spent his life with community mental health. His love of humankind came across and made you want to do a better job," said Krupski.

Board member Brian Willoughby closed the event by pointing out the "totally absurd picture" of mental health care in this country — where people who cannot get timely help frequently wind up in jail or the emergency room. "Imagine if we treated cancer patients that way," he said.

The Wellness Project was among seven Merit Finalists for the Mutual of America Foundation's 2012 Community Partnership Award; there were also two Honorable Mentions and a National award, which went to Operation Rebound, a San Diego, Calif., program that helps active duty soldiers, veterans, first responders and others who have been injured in the line of duty get back into sports and physical fitness.

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