There’s new leadership at the Carson Center for Human Services, headquartered on Broad Street in Westfield, but the current CEO admits that she has inherited a strong organization from her predecessor.
“Kathy Damon was here for more than two decades,” said Sue West, “and in her time, she saw the center grow from a $2 million-a-year agency to more than $16 million, overseeing thousands of patients.”
West took over as CEO this past March, bringing more than 20 years of professional leadership in behavioral health care in New York with her. She said the job attracted her because of one word.
“When I saw the ad for the Carson Center,” she recalled, “the one thing that distinguished it from all other CEO ads was the word ’compassionate.’ They were looking for a leader who was competent not only in financial matters and human-services delivery, but who also did things in a compassionate way.”
From the very beginning, that has been a hallmark of the Carson Center, said current board chairman Philip Cameron. “Not that other agencies don’t offer compassionate care,” he added. “However, despite all the pressures in the market, the Carson Center and its staff, managers, and board have managed to keep the heart in.”
It began in 1963 as the Westfield Area Child Guidance Center, in a tiny office at City Hall, with a small budget and short client list. Three years later, Marguerite Carson took over leadership of the agency, and soon expanded its offerings to include adult programs.
Community-based mental-health services were the backbone of the center, and as they continued to grow, the name changed to the Westfield Area Mental Health Clinic in 1973. Around this time, a prevailing change was underway in the state-funded treatment of mental health.
States began to divest themselves of many services that were traditionally held in hospitals and residential psychiatric settings, Cameron explained. “The shift was to community-based services, and that is where we really started to expand.”
While West acknowledged her predecessor’s stellar tenure at the center, she said that the year ahead will be marked by a consistent focus on further increasing the strength and stability of the agency — not an easy task with the current challenges involving health care management and funding.
“There are enormous pressures in our market to grow,” she said. “Part of it is that you achieve economies of scale when you’re larger, and you can build your administrative infrastructure. And you need that infrastructure because there are so many regulations and layer upon layer of accountability.
“But our first priority, and we here all agree,” she added, “is that the Carson Center remain vital through this leadership transition. Our stability is goal number one.”
It hasn’t taken West long to pinpoint the essential role that the Carson Center plays in Western Mass.
“What we do best is meeting people where they are and providing them with the services they need at any given moment in time,” she said.
Primarily based around mental-health concerns, the Carson Center’s programs benefit all ages from early childhood to elder care. Either at their own agency clinics or through partnerships at other regional health care providers, the center encompasses the following:
- The Carson Center Psychiatry Program, in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts;
- The Carson Center at Valley Human Services, providing behavioral health for children and adults in the Ware and Palmer areas;
- The Center for Adults and Families, for those over 18, focusing on mental health, life adjustment, and substance abuse;
- The Center for Children and Youth, providing comprehensive outpatient mental-health care for children, adolescents, and their families;
- The Center for Crisis Stabilization, a 24-hour service for individuals who may require intensive care, but not hospitalization;
- The Center for Development, for children and adults with developmental disabilities;
- The Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Services, offering rehabilitation, counseling, case management, therapeutic recreation, and neuropsychology;
- A community-service agency for Holyoke- and Westfield-area youth, and a community-support program for adults, both administered through the auspices of Mass. subsidized health care;
- Kamp for Kids, a program launched in 1975 for youths age 3-22 with and without disabilities, to have the opportunity to share in a summer-camp setting; and
- The Westfield Crisis Intervention Program, taking place at both the center’s Westfield offices as well as Noble Hospital, offering around-the-clock consultation, evaluation, and support.
Over the years, Cameron said, these programs have grown and changed due to the demands from the center’s population.
“We cover a geographic area that, at least traditionally, has not been challenged by other health care providers similar to ourselves,” he explained. “That is changing, no doubt. There’s been an influx of other types of services that often start out very specific — perhaps it’s drug and alcohol, and then they may shift into more of an overlap into some things that we do.
“Quite often, we work in collaboration with those folks,” he continued. “Because we ourselves have ventured off into a number of other communities as well, we find that we can better serve the community not by trying to supplant what exists, but in conjunction with those who may be there — perhaps by offering additional services. And that has been one way we have grown over the years as an organization.”
Ahead of the Curve
As both West and Cameron mentioned, the Carson Center’s mission focuses on quality care, but with an emphasis on compassion.
“Think about the client population that we’re serving,” Cameron explained, referring to mental- and behavioral-health patients, and those on the lower end of the income spectrum. “Sometimes there are people who have, in many cases, difficult pasts that influence their daily lives. It’s one of those populations that the rest of the world sometimes wants to push off to the side and forget about their existence. But they do exist, they’re in our communities, they need services, and they might not always be able to find them on their own.
“Our goal is to make these people part of the community,” he continued. “How can we make our clients a better contributor to the community, not just requiring services and being what people think of as a burden? There are ways everyone can take part in every community.”
What makes this increasingly difficult, however, is the rapidly changing funding streams for health care. “There’s been a level government funding over the past 20 years or so,” West said. “A certain-sized pie gets divvied up — and there are more and more needs in the community — but the pie doesn’t get any larger and instead gets chopped up more and more. The challenges that we have are to continue the services we provide, in ever-changing models.”
When speaking of the expansion of the Carson Center that her predecessor oversaw, West said they were important steps to build the agency into what it is today, but that there may not be such an evolutionary role in the immediate future.
“As the CEO, my responsibility is to take care of the inside piece, that our staff have all they need to get the job done as best they can,” she said. “That in itself is challenging because of the squeeze on health care dollars. In that external environment, you have to be a strategist as well as a general manager.
“The field is changing like this,” she said, snapping her fingers.
And, she said, the existing size of the agency is ideal in that “we haven’t gotten so big as to be inflexible. We can still turn on a dime and go for a new opportunity, meet a new community need. But we have enough size where we have reached a critical-mass point.”
Cameron said that, as the Carson Center enters its 49th year of existence, there’s one thing he’d like to change. “We’re one of the best-kept secrets!” he laughed, adding that this is a designation the center needs to shed.
West agreed with that assessment and offered her own perspective on the center’s role in the community. “The fact that we may not be as well-known outside of our region is an issue to address in the years ahead. The cost of providing care isn’t always covered by the state and insurance. We need the community to realize our importance.”
One of those methods will be taking place on May 21, when the Carson Center hosts the 36th annual golf tournament at the Tekoa Country Club benefitting the Kamp for Kids. The goal this year is to raise $25,000 to make up for the state budget cuts that have hit scholarship funding for the camp hard.
West is eager to preside over the first of what will be many such benefits in her time at the center. Reflecting on the larger issues of the agency, and her lifetime spent on the forefront of behavioral- and mental-health care concerns, she emphasized the importance of such agencies as hers — of, by, and for the community.
“If programs like ours weren’t here,” she said, “the community would look a lot different.”