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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner
Published: 24 September 2009

The Garlington Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. reopened Friday, Sept. 11, with a ceremony, followed by a picnic and celebration on Saturday. Children, teens, center staff, community leaders and many people who use the services offered at the center, came together to celebrate. "It feels like coming back home," said Gladys Howard, a clinical case manager. "Because a lot of clients feel that this is a safe place for them. It's where they are cared for; it's where they are nurtured."

The celebration included a catered barbecue picnic, a children's play area with face painting, DJ Kevin Scott, Portland pianist Janice Scroggins; slam poet, Rochell "Ro Deezy" Hart; Nabeeh Mustafa, author D'Norgia Price; and the Radical Young Men Mime Troupe from Highland Christian Center/United Church of Christ. Something for everyone.
The center delivers mental health and addiction services to about 500 people; about half of them White and about one-third African American. They come for medications, talk therapy and group support, to help them deal with illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and mood instability. The center also helps people deal with addictions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling and more.
Mental illness affects far more of us than we acknowledge, says Sharon Gary-Smith, director of special projects, who organized the reopening celebrations.
"We want to see all families thriving and I emphasize all because one-third of all people are said to have mental illness of some kind and that means that two-thirds of us have family members and friends who are struggling with mental illness or in need of services."

An Invisible Disability

You can't see a mental illness, such as depression, but it can be even more disabling than a serious physical illness. As a result, most Garlington Center clients are unable to compete in the competitive job market. They rarely earn much money and most are covered by Medicaid, the federal program that provides health care to seriously disabled people.
Gary-Smith said that mental illness is still a hidden problem. A safe place to get help is especially important for people dealing with mental illness, because many people are afraid to admit they have mental illness. Many sufferers don't get help until they reach a crisis and end up in a hospital. Others go to jail because their illness goes unrecognized until their behavior brings them into contact with police. Better community support could help prevent these painful and costly outcomes, Gary-Smith said.
"People are embarrassed because of the stigma attached to mental illness," she says. Families don't want people to know, particularly when they already are marginalized because they are poor or minority families who already suffer from racism.There is a lot of judgment about who is worthy of treatment."
Gary-Smith is taking that message to community venues, in an effort to build understanding and acceptance.

The Center With Nine Lives

The Garlington Center has been closed for almost a year because of a fire that destroyed it in October 2008. While the center was being restored, the clinic moved to a site on N. Killingsworth. Nobody went without medication or support, staff say, but some clients found the sudden move disorienting. The fire was arson, but the person responsible has never been identified. That mystery still troubles some center users.
"Their place of refuge was damaged and they wondered who would do such a thing," Gladys Howard said.
Cascadia Behavioral Health, a nonprofit mental health agency, manages the center along with two other clinics across the city. About three-quarters of the center's service users live either in adult foster homes, independently or with their families, but Cascadia also manages just under 700 housing units across the city.
The Garlington Center was named after the Rev. John Garlington, an African American minister with a reputation for standing up for those without a voice. During the 90s the center gained a reputation for cultural competence in its mental health work. But staffing problems and poor financial management almost closed it down in 1999 and 2002. Then after the fire, last year, Cascadia Behavioral Health again considered closing the center. Strong advocacy from former Sen. Avel Gordly, center users and the community prompted Multnomah County and Cascadia to drop those plans.
In its latest incarnation, the Garlington Center will also house the North by Northeast Community Health Center and the Sexual Minority Youth Center. The health clinic, started by Pastor Mary Overstreet Smith and Dr. Jill Ginsberg offers health screens and basic medical care at no cost to uninsured people. About 550 young people, who may be gay, lesbian, transgendered or dealing with sexual identity questions, are supported through the SMYRC program.
The Garlington Center is at 3024 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 503-238-0769.


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