MIDDLEBURY — It was in November of 1959 that a handful of area citizens and health care professionals established a nonprofit “guidance clinic” in a small room in Middlebury’s municipal building, a service designed to offer personal and family counseling.
A half century later, that guidance clinic has grown into the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), an organization featuring 255 employees delivering mental health services to around 2,000 clients annually out of 10 buildings throughout the county.
“What the early founders were thinking was, ‘There is a need out there; let’s do something about it,’” said CSAC Executive Director Robert Thorn, who has himself spent 30 years with the agency. “That is the essence of the counseling service — a group of exceptional people who see a need and do something about it.”
David Andrews, CSAC’s director of development and community relations, said several of the organization’s founders were affiliated with the Middlebury United Methodist Church, and were particularly keen on helping families experiencing domestic strife.
“I think the needs of kids and families were the first thing they were thinking about — children having problems at school because of the problems they were having at home — and they wanted to provide them with some help in dealing with that,” Andrews said. “I don’t think they had it in mind that they were going to be dealing with deinstitutionalizing people from Brandon (Training School) or the (Vermont) State Hospital at that point.”
While the founders — including Dr. Wilton W. Covey — could not have envisioned deinstitutionalization, it proved to be the single biggest contributor to CSAC’s growth and diversification of services, according to Thorn. Gradually, and in particular during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, CSAC and other mental health services providers statewide were called upon to help integrate former patients into the community, people who had previously been warehoused in institutions.
“It was what I consider to be one of the great social movements in our country, which was associated with the human rights movement,” Thorn said of deinstitutionalization. “It was an incredibly exciting time to be working in this field.”
CSAC was given the resources to treat people with developmental or mental health challenges in adult foster care or in Intermediate Care Facilities — small group homes in which counseling and a sense of independent living are instilled in patients. And whenever possible, patients are set up in residences of their own with wrap-around services.
“That is the story behind our growth,” Thorn said of the dismantling if mental institutions and advent of community care. “Our growth was really (the result of ) that social and policy shift … and probably the thing over the last 100 years that led to the improvement of quality of life for people with developmental and mental health needs.”
Counseling Service officials past and present took some time to reminisce about the organization’s birthday at its annual meeting on Nov. 5 at the Middlebury American Legion. Adorning the meeting hall were fact-filled posters noting how CSAC:
• Served 284 clients in 1969 with a staff of 10 and a budget of $53,000. Forty years later, the organization’s 2009 budget is around $16.5 million.
• Opened a group home on Elm Street in 1978, and spawned such now-independent programs as the Addison County Parent-Child Center, the Addison County Retired Senior Volunteer Program and Project Independence.
• Established a sex offenders treatment program in 1985, the same year in which it created the Employee Associates Program that places mental health clients with local businesses for work experience.
• Expanded programs into area schools to help troubled youths and their families during the 1990s. Established the “Hill House” in Middlebury for six clients with severe and persistent mental illness.
• Consolidated many of its services in two buildings in Middlebury’s Catamount Park during the current decade.
Dottie Neuberger has seen a lot of those changes. She began working for CSAC as an “impact worker” in 1972, helping patients make the transition from institutions to community-based programs. In 1979, Neuberger became CSAC’s school-based clinician at Middlebury Union High School, a position from which she retired in 2000. But her retirement was short-lived, as she rejoined the organization and now serves as the school-based clinician at Bridport Central School two days a week.
“They are an amazing, dedicated group as a whole,” Neuberger said of the CSAC staff. “I have enormous respect for the people with whom I’ve worked. I have really enjoyed my work a great deal.”
Neuberger, who was the 14th employee that CSAC hired, recalled the early days based in the basement of Middlebury’s municipal building.
“You could get your feet wet on a bad day in the spring,” she said of the building conditions. “(CSAC) has certainly come a long way.”
While CSAC has seen steady growth during its first 50 years, state and federal budget limitations during recent years have forced the organization — along with many other nonprofits — to rein in expenses and services. CSAC had to trim 10 positions from its staff this past year, which it was able to do through attrition. The organization also instituted a pay freeze and closed a small group home on Foote Street.
“We reduced a little bit of service to a lot or people to minimize the impact,” Thorn said.
But the financial picture could be more dire next year, Thorn and Andrews acknowledged.
“They are talking about an 8-percent reduction in the state’s general fund for state services, including the ones we do,” Andrews said. “That has a multiplier effect, because it involves (federal) Medicaid matching money.”
“Right now, the planning that is going on with us is for an 8 percent to 20 percent reduction in some of our funds,” Thorn said. “It would affect the bulk of them, because right now we are in 80-percent Medicaid dollars. We are looking at potentially bigger reductions than we have ever seen.”
Donnaleen Farwell’s daughter, Desiree, has been a CSAC client for almost 30 years. She described her daughter as being profoundly mentally impaired, living with cerebral palsy. Desiree was one of the many patients who once received care at the Brandon Training School, which closed in 1993. Farwell said her daughter transitioned from the training school to a series of group homes run by CSAC in Middlebury. In 2000, Desiree — now 40 — was placed into foster care with a family in Salisbury.
“Through all of this, (Desiree) has taught me the most of anyone in my life,” Farwell said. “She is a success story.”
Farwell, now a Chittenden selectwoman, said she owes CSAC a tremendous debt of gratitude for providing a level of care to her daughter that she, as a single mom, was unable to provide through the years.
“I can’t say enough about the Counseling Service,” Farwell said. “I feel they were ahead of their time. In a kind and caring way, they have continued their commitment to Desiree and myself.
“I truly wish CSAC another 50 years.”