Clients grateful as Garlington Center reopens

From the Oregonian, September 18 2009

A few months after the Garlington Center avoided closure by Multnomah County last year, a fire closed it anyway.

But the same fighting spirit that saved the mental health and addiction clinic from the county’s ax brought it back to life. The center reopened last week on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Gladys Howard of the Garlington Center plays Uno with clients Roxanne Taylor (left) and Sharon King.

Gladys Howard of the Garlington Center plays Uno with clients Roxanne Taylor (left) and Sharon King.

“It was really not an option to close this location,” said Derald Walker, chief executive officer of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, which operates the center. “It would leave the community of color here with no place to turn.”

Even before the fire, uncertainty shadowed the center’s future. Cascadia — which handled most of Multnomah County’s mental health services –was wracked by financial woes and required a government bailout to keep going.

The Garlington Center served a low-income and largely African American clientele and was the agency’s least profitable. Cascadia recommended closing it and sending clients elsewhere.

But a community used to being pushed aside because of income, race, mental illness and addiction said not this time. They fought the closing and won.

Walker says the outpouring sparked a realization about the need for the clinic to help those who often don’t feel comfortable in clinics in other areas that serve a less diverse group and with less diverse staff.

Then a spark of another sort took hold. The kind that doesn’t save, but destroys.

“When we saw the fire, when we lost Garlington, we thought it was the end of the world,” says Sharon King. “It’s something we cried about. We thought we’d never see it again.”

King, 63, is a Northeast Portland resident who’s come to the center in one of its incarnations for more than two decades. She gets treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at least three days a week.

King, like other clients, never lost services. The day after the fire, Garlington staffers dispensed medicine and saw clients from the parking lot.

Director Tasha Wheatt-Delancy said meeting needs was the first priority.

For months, staff met clients in trailers and an RV just feet from the blackened building. Clients were dispersed to other Cascadia clinics and to temporary clinics set up at the Salvation Army and a church nearby.

But it caused a hardship for people who found stability at the center and now had to go from place to place. What was a five-minute bus ride for one client turned into an 1 1/2-hour one.

And it wasn’t always pretty, either.

Gwen Ferrell, a 22-year-old who came to Garlington for a marijuana addiction, says the trailers were drafty and cold in winter. But, she says, she never thought of going anywhere else.

“It’s diverse here and you meet all types of people,” says Ferrell. “The staff understands you and even if they don’t, they’ll get into your shoes for that moment just so they can.”

And on a sunny September day, the hardship seemed to have paved the way for the blessings.

Insurance paid for a $2.1 million rebuilding, and clients now fill a lobby scented with the fresh taupe-colored paint on the walls. Nearly a year ago, in October, those walls took the charred brunt of a fire, whose cause was not determined, that destroyed about 80 percent of the building.

As part of the redesign, four interview rooms are decorated in colors and themes that reflect African American, Native American, Latino and Asian identities. And the center now provides space for two other groups that had cramped, inadequate facilities, the North by Northeast Community Health Center — a free clinic — and the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center.

For King and the up to 600 people of all races who use Garlington’s services, the beauty of the center once cloaked in ashes is a metaphor for their lives.

“I was really in a fix and this center brought me through it,” King says. “I’m glad someone thought we were important enough to bring it back for us.”

As King leaves the center, she walks past a T-shirt tacked to the reception desk.

Above a proverbial rising phoenix, it reads: “The fire is in all of us.”