Building a special place for children with mental illnesses

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April 17, 2014 // UPDATED 8:29 pm - April 17, 2014
By: Sarah McKenzie
Mayor Betsy Hodges signs the final beam dropped into place at Washburn's new building under construction at a recent celebration.
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Sarah McKenzie
Washburn Center for Children seeks community support for capital campaign

Washburn Center for Children, a community mental health center, is in the final phase of its $24.5 million capital campaign for its new building under construction on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

The center is a leader in providing care for children with mental health problems. It’s outgrown its space at 2400 Nicollet and plans to move into its new 56,000-square-foot facility at 1100 Glenwood Ave. N. the end of October, said Steve Lepinski, executive director of the Washburn Center for Children

“It’s designed to be a children’s mental health facility so we’re hoping and expecting that the building itself will be supporting some of the therapeutic work that we do,” Lepinski said. “We’re trying to integrate aspects of nature. With the design of the building we have natural light in all of the buildings.”

To date, Washburn has raised about $23.2 million for the new center — about $1 million short of the campaign goal. It has entered the community phase of the capital campaign and is now seeking donations ranging from $500 to $5,000. 

“We’ve been really impressed by the way the community has stepped up,” Lepinski said. “There’s increased interest in children’s mental health. Unfortunately, some of it comes from school shootings and tragedies. … We as a broader community are doing a much better job of reducing the stigma. It used to be something you just didn’t talk about as much.”

Washburn serves about 2,700 children a year with a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and trauma, among other conditions. It treats children from birth to adolescence.

It has doubled the number of children it has served since 2007, Lepinski said.

The new facility on Glenwood is about twice the size of its current location on Nicollet.

Author Richard Louv, who writes about the importance of children having a connection with nature, has consulted on the building’s design.

Melanie Litman-Morris, a clinician for Washburn’s Family Focused program, said a lot of thoughtfulness has gone into planning spaces that will help children undergoing care at the center.

There will be bigger play areas, natural light in all of the classrooms, earth-tone colors and wood elements throughout the building designed to be calming and grounding, she said.

“Children with anxiety can be over stimulated by lots of color,” she said.

Robin of Bloomington, who declined to provide her last name for publication, has two daughters who saw specialists at Washburn. Jenna, 10, was treated for anxiety and ADHD and Elise, 13, had sensory issues that made it difficult for her to get ready for school in the morning because her clothes didn’t feel right.

Now her children are doing much better, but still rely on the coping strategies they learned at Washburn, Robin said.

“Before [Washburn] everything was so chaotic. We were so disconnected from each other,” she said. “It was hard for each of us to relate to each other. … We’re really been able to become more of a family. We’ve become closer.”

Washburn estimates that one-fifth of all Minnesota children and adolescents experience symptoms of mental illness at some point, yet only about 20 percent of the children seek professional help.

About 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition and those who get therapy have a lower rate of recidivism, according to the center.

Lepinski said the medical community has done a good job responding to the physical needs of children with high quality care centers, but has lagged behind when it comes to mental health care.

Washburn’s new building will be a “very visible personification” of a commitment to reaching out to young people struggling with mental health disorders, he said.

“We really see it as the community coming together to respond in a very different way to the mental health needs of the children in the community,” he said.

FYI …

To learn more about Washburn Center for Children’s new facility and its capital campaign, go to www.washburn.org.