Petersburg Pilot -

Whatever works: PMHS celebrates 20 years


Kyle Clayton / Petersburg Pilot

Sue Ohmer speaks at PMHS's 20th anniversary celebration in the public library conference room. Board members, staff and members of the public attended the event honoring PMHS, its founder and supporters.

What started as a two-woman operation consisting of a secretary and a fresh college grad has turned into a multi-program, community wide mental health center that serves several hundred clients a year.

Petersburg Mental Health Services celebrated its 20-year anniversary last week where board members and other guests gave accolades to PMHS Executive Director Susan Ohmer-the once wide-eyed and idealistic college grad who came back to her hometown in 1993.

When Ohmer returned to Petersburg an organization out of Ketchikan received state grant funding for mental health services and dispersed it regionally. Several Petersburg residents wanted to gain local control over how that money was spent.

"You couldn't buy paperclips without getting approval," Ohmer said. "Petersburg got up in arms and we thought we could do a better job."

Ohmer, however, wasn't so sure she should be the one to run the new Petersburg Medical Center's mental health department.

"I thought, 'I'd have to write grants and I've never even read one'," Ohmer said.

But she applied and was hired. Within weeks Ohmer was seeing almost 40 clients per week. Within a year she formed a private non-profit corporation and became independent of the hospital. Her only days off were the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

"I ate Pop Tarts instead of cereal because you can eat Pop Tarts lying down," Ohmer said.

Since then PMHS has increased its staff to five full-time clinicians and is fully immersed in the community. Craft and quilting classes, a wellness program that offers free or reduced rate gym passes, going out on poke boats, and nutrition and cooking classes are some of programs that Ohmer says connect people with each other and the community at large.

"Our philosophy includes the phrase 'We do whatever works,'" Ohmer said. "We do whatever works to increase a person's ability to take care of themselves and increase their quality of life."

If a person won't open up in the chair or on the couch PMHS clinicians will take them to the basketball court or out the road to go fishing-whatever works to get them to connect.

Looking ahead, Ohmer said, the challenge will be to maintain staff as state grant funding dries up. Ohmer said traditionally 75 percent of PMHS revenues came from grants. In 2012, PMHS received around $520,000 in grant funding-less than half of its total revenues.

"My big challenge is how do I maintain staff by being creative, by finding other grants and other programs and other ways to partner with other agencies," Ohmer said.

During the anniversary ceremony Ohmer thanked the entire community for helping to connect PMHS to the rest of Petersburg

"We've had amazing support with the doctors, the hospital, the school, the police, the courts and the businesses that support us when we do a fundraiser," Ohmer said. "This is a community mental health center."

PMHS serves around 250 clients a year not including client family members and community program participants.


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