Leadership Gift

“I have learned so much,” Barbara Mitchell says of her four decades leading the mental health nonprofit Interim, Inc. Among the accomplishments in that span are the implementation of a housing program and other services.

Barbara Mitchell never set out to be the executive director of a successful mental health services nonprofit. When she took the job leading Interim, Inc. in 1984, she had no experience as an executive. She learned as she went, leaning heavily on mentors to guide her. She had no experience in real estate but she led Interim into a new era of building housing with supportive services for clients.

When Mitchell started at Interim in 1979 – after previously working for Monterey County Behavioral Health as a social worker – she helped write a grant proposal to the state asking for money to run a vocational services program. The idea was to give people with mental health challenges on-the-job training as a way to acquire work skills. Interim received the grant, and Mitchell found herself launching a cookie bakery in Marina.

“Little did the state know I had never run a business, ever, in my entire life,” Mitchell says. “I knew nothing about a bakery except that I liked chocolate chip cookies.”

She reached out to local bakers for help. Mitchell says she became executive director “by accident” after the first Interim executive director left.

After a career facilitating thousands of people in social rehabilitation so they can successfully live on their own, Mitchell is now retired and has handed the reins over to Interim’s new executive director, Rhiyan Quiton, who most recently served as a manager within the Behavioral Health Bureau of the Monterey County Health Department. Mitchell is still involved for now, helping Quiton as he takes over. She’s also retaining her seat on the California Behavioral Health Planning Council.

“It’s really been more than a job – it’s been a calling, not in a religious sense. It’s hard to explain,” Mitchell says. “I have gained probably as much or more than I’ve put in doing this work here.”

Weekly: When you took over at Interim you essentially had to complete a graduate course on how to be an executive director on the job.

Mitchell: I knew nothing. I had never even seen the agency’s financials. I was a program director. The board was very small, so we had to rebuild the board. I am never shy about asking for help, so I got a lot of help from people in the community, other people [in the state]. My theory has always been you beg or you borrow and you talk people into helping you. And I’m very good at talking people into helping us.

How did you get into housing development?

We understood at that point [in 1985] that you could put people into a residential treatment program and they could do really well – they were called halfway houses – but what did you do with them afterwards? The problem was there was no place to move to. And so we started on the idea we’re going to build housing.

Interim used to rent a bunch of houses that were all crumbling Victorians and we kept losing them to redevelopment. We understood that if we were going to be successful, we would need supportive housing.

In your 44 years, what are your proudest accomplishments?

We built a huge amount of housing as well as three treatment programs. We’ve probably built more supportive housing per capita than any county in California for this specific population. We have constructed over 20 projects since 1987. Interim has over 300 beds of which we own 240… I always emphasize to people this is a “we” project, not a “me” project, because it really does take a cast of thousands.

The other thing I’m proud of is that we’ve involved our clients in planning and running these projects. Twenty percent of Interim’s workforce are people with lived experience in mental health challenges. We have learned that using peers in services really helps to model this for other people and it helps us to understand the best strategies in helping others.

What’s your advice to the community for the future of helping people with mental illness?

Housing people is only the first step – especially if they are homeless with a lot of challenges. You need an extensive amount of support services to keep them housed. You need affordable housing for people with really low incomes. The average rent contribution we’re getting is $300 a month, so you have to have subsidized housing. The other thing is that employment is an important part of recovery for a lot of people.

I have a long list of lessons I’ve learned, and one of them is to listen to the clients because you probably don’t have all the answers.

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