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Roots and Branches: Transforming lives of many

2013 is coming to an end. It has been a year of some of the most profound changes I have experienced in decades.

I am old enough to have lived through numerous transformation cycles across multiple disciplines; education, social services, mental health, developmental disabilities and adult and juvenile crime. There have always been opportunities to apply your training and experience, allowing those you serve to achieve better outcomes.

Looking back, I can honestly say we have come a long way in most of the disciplines, moving in a more respectful, conscientious manner in delivering services. There are a few that still dance to the same old music, two steps forward, one step back.

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I did my psychology internship at the state mental hospital in the late Sixties. It was “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” time, where people with a myriad of mental health problems were warehoused, many for their entire lives.

There was a pall across the ancient hospital even then; paint-chipped bars screeched as they scraped across the concrete corridor, announcing my coming and going. I was instructed not to draw attention to myself, not to touch or make eye contact with the “inmates.”

Yes, we called them inmates then, not clients; or heaven forbid, by their given name. That seemed to be lost on the wing where I worked. It was surreal, frightening, totally depressing. There was an “Alice down the rabbit hole” feel to the institution, with its towering oaks and beautifully manicured grounds a gentile façade for the labyrinth of dark, dank corridors that lay behind its walls.

You tried to tell yourself it was better than some of the hell holes they had come from, but that didn’t dispel the feeling that it was inhumane, morally unjust, unconscionable. Selfishly I couldn’t wait to finish the semester and move on.

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I did my sociology/criminology internship at Oregon State Correctional Institute, teaching reading and math to another type of inmate. Who would think that the razor wire that rimmed the towering walls would contain a more cheerful, hopeful environment?

Corrections was in an upward cycle; we would eliminate drug use, teach the inmates how to read and write, help them earn a GED, associate, even bachelor’s degree and make sure they had a job when they left the prison. Some learned a trade in the campus woodshop, mechanics in the machinery garage or agriculture on the extensive farms that surrounded the facilities.

I entered the barred corridors with a sense that I could change a person’s life, hopeful for them. My optimism dimmed somewhat as I watched some of my favorite inmates leave, and then return within a six-month period.

It was the end of the Sixties. We were not content to warehouse, but determined to break the cycle of imprisonment. Then the gang wars of the Seventies and Eighties engulfed our psyche. We spent our taxes on more and bigger prisons that could warehouse all the dangerous people who threatened our homes and our families. “One, two or three strikes and you’re out” was the mantra.

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It took more than 30 years for the system to shift from a punitive to a slightly more productive environment. We are in a restorative justice phase now, where we require the perpetrator to do some punitive time, but also restore the sense of safety taken from the community, families or individuals who were their victims.

When money permits, we also provide some sort of rehabilitation for the criminal through mental health and drug treatment, education or job training.

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Education has changed significantly over the last 45 years in a rhythmic pendulum motion. Often what was old is new again, especially in how classes are conducted. But when it comes to the amount of information our students must absorb or access, the change is astronomical.

Information changes in nanoseconds, not lending itself to annual updates like the Book of Knowledge that sat on the classroom shelf in the Sixties. Add to that the rapidity of technological change which makes the newest edition outdated before you have time to watch the tutorial.

Education is in constant flux. Yet the most common complaint that teachers have is how to deal with inappropriate classroom behavior that constrains the learning capacity of the individual or those around them. It only takes a few disruptive individuals to throw a classroom into chaos.

What is different about this decade is the rapidity of change and that it is occurring simultaneously across all the different systems. It makes one feel like a racecar driver rounding an undefined track at breakneck speeds. There is no time to catch your breath, enjoy the opportunity for change, or thoughtfully consider how it might play out in the real world.

Being proactive is a luxury of the past. Hit the ground running at breakneck speed is the right now and foreseeable future.

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In no discipline is there more at stake than in the area of health care transformation and the systems that support individual and community health at the local, state and national level. It is the best of times and the worst of times.

Yet I have found helping facilitate the transformation is inherently rewarding. We have some amazing leadership at the health department, hospital and county levels. We have learned to practice collaboration knowing that it will transform the lives of many.

We have created dental consortiums that provide dental care to those in need. We have created Gorge Access, where those who are ineligible for health care will still receive the best care available.

Once cutthroat competitors, our hospitals now sit shoulder-to-shoulder at one another’s tables to assess the needs of individuals and the communities in which they live to better meet those needs.

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The manner in which Hood River and Wasco counties are approaching this transformation is truly a tribute to the leadership and wisdom of many in the Gorge. They have embraced working together, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.

I attribute much of this success to an enigmatic spirit who goes by the name of Coco Yackley. An unpretentious woman with a unique moniker, she has the uncanny ability to work with corporate executives and individuals in need of health services all on an equal footing.

Coupled with the indomitable spirit of Mark Thomas, whose towering stature is only superseded by his unwavering faith in the goodness of man, this dynamic duo is making change an exciting adventure.

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I expect there to be potholes in which we will stumble, even tar pits in which we may become mired. But with dedicated leadership and the ability to empower others across the continuum we will climb out of the holes and begin our ascent to the mountaintop, where our vision of a healthy community, where all people can thrive, can best be achieved. A group of communities that really care for one another.

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