PCS marks four decades

March 13, 2012

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Jim Tobin, longtime executive director of Piedmont Community Services (PCS), saw a former heroin addict at a community event recently.

"He's alive. His life is good," Tobin said of the man now, a far cry from his life in the '70s.

"Bob Becker literally saved his life. He helped him get off heroin, get physically healthy," Tobin said. Becker was substance clinical director at the Patrick Henry Drug and Alcohol Council, and Tobin was executive director of the council, which was a partner agency to PCS.

As Tobin recalls, the addict lived for a while in a local substance abuse group home. As a result, he got pointed in the right direction, helping him turn his life around and getting his children back.

There are many similar examples in the area, Tobin said.

Piedmont Community Services is marking its 40th year in 2012, and Tobin has been its executive director more than 20 of those years. But his ties to PCS through the drug and alcohol council go back almost to Piedmont's beginning.

Recently, Tobin and other Piedmont long-timers reminisced about its history and impact on the community.

Carol Chittum, R.N., who has worked at Piedmont since 1975, said she has given medications to a man with paranoid schizophrenia for many years, and having a job as a bag boy at a local business "has kept him sane."

The man had been very depressed and withdrawn at home, but at work he is friendly and outgoing, she said. "It (the job) helped his self-esteem and kept him focused so he didn't go off on delusions," she said.

A generation ago, this man would have spent most of his life at the state mental hospital at Petersburg, Tobin said. He added that people who need services generally are better off being treated in their home communities rather than being sent away to state training centers. The clients' quality of life is improved through community services, and Virginia saves "a truckload of money," Tobin said.

Marie Craddock, accounts payable specialist who has worked at PCS since 1976, said over the years she has seen improvements in people receiving services there. "They become more personable. That made us feel better," she said.

Kippy Cassell, Piedmont's director of information technology who has worked there since 1988, said much of his job involves number crunching, but he has seen staff at Piedmont interacting with clients and clients getting better. He also has seen Piedmont serve more and more people as its services grew, and Piedmont's technology has improved.

He recalled in the days before electronic records, workers kept track of how many people used PCS services by punching holes in service surveys and then counting the chads (small pieces of paper) that had been punched out.

Chittum, who is 73, said she does not want to retire. "I really care about these people," she said of her clients. "They are my friends."

Tobin gave a recent example of Piedmont helping someone. Tobin said he had just signed an intellectual disability waiver for a man with an IQ of 60 or so who is on the verge of homelessness. The waiver will enable him to live in a group home of his choice and participate in day programs, Tobin said.

Asked what he considers his biggest achievements at Piedmont, Tobin said he is not a counselor but a program builder who creates systems of services from the ground up, including designing, obtaining funding and putting services in place.

He said he can walk in the community "and see my fingerprints everywhere."

Tobin said the General Assembly in 1968 passed legislation authorizing local governments to create Chapter 10 boards. Today they are known as community services boards.

For many years, he said, people with mental illnesses had been treated in state hospitals. Petersburg, the state hospital that served this area, was at times one of the biggest mental hospitals in the nation. There was a negative stigma associated with being a patient at Petersburg, but there was no good alternative, according to Tobin and others.

Two streams came together to create the deinstitutionalization movement that led to the creation of Piedmont and other community service boards, Tobin said. One was advances in psychiatric medicines in the 1950s and 1960s that allowed people to be calm, rational and stay with their families in their home communities.

The other stream was the civil rights movement and a push for people with mental illnesses to be treated in a less restrictive environment in their home communities, rather than being locked away in a faraway place, often for the rest of their lives, which tended to cause hopelessness, according to Tobin and others.

In 1972, Piedmont Regional Mental Health & Retardation Services Board (the legal title of Piedmont Community Services) was formed by joint resolution of Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and Martinsville.

Lambert Wood became Piedmont's first executive director in 1973, and Ottis Birge took the helm in 1983.

Tobin was recruited as executive director of Patrick Henry Drug Control Council in 1974. Piedmont, which was focusing on mental health services, partnered with the council to provide substance abuse services. Tobin was hired as Piedmont's third executive director in 1990, and the drug and alcohol council became part of Piedmont in 1992.

According to Tobin, other longtime PCS workers and a PCS report, a few of the achievements and developments at Piedmont over the years are:

  • Mental retardation services, which became part of Piedmont's mission in the early 1980s.
  • Substance abuse services, which became part of its mission in the early 1990s. 
  • School-based therapy, in which Piedmont partners with school divisions to identify students who need counseling services.
  • The community recovery program, helping clients recovering from mental illness find employment and other services.
  • Veterans services through the Wounded Warrior Program.
  • Use of case managers (now there are at least 30), which enables services to be built around individual clients’ needs.
  • Electronic records 
  • Use of mental health support workers, who do such things as go to clients’ homes to check on them and get them active and out in the community.

Also, dozens of for-profits and nonprofits have developed that provide intellectual disability, mental health or substance abuse services. Piedmont, however, provides a whole continuum of services, PCS officials pointed out.

PCS will open its first intermediate care facility this spring. The residence will serve eight adults with intellectual disabilities who also require additional specific services to meet their declining physical health needs, according to a PCS report.


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