Intermountain - Caring Solutions, Strong Families, Healthy Communities

27 years at Intermountain: Lessons Learned and Leaps Ahead

Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, Ph.D., Clinical Director

It’s hard to believe that my time at Intermountain is coming to a close.  27 years ago, on June 14, 1990, I came to Intermountain Children’s Home as their clinical director.   It was a beautiful location set atop a hill, overlooking Helena and housing 24 children in 3 open cottages. As I ate lunch with the children on one of those first days, I was astounded at their good manners and their willingness to engage with a stranger. They were far more collected than most children in a public school setting.  Most of the children in care at that time were wards of the state – removed from their families secondary to abuse and neglect.  I watched in awe as the staff rocked and played with and sung to and taught these children.

Over the past 27 years I have learned many lessons from the children, the staff and the leadership of Intermountain.

Listen to the children:  Children communicate in so many ways, often through behavior that seems odd or out of line.  All of the children here have big and confusing feelings and what they feel can come out in odd and aggressive ways.  But if we listen, they will tell us and we can understand what they need. And as we respond to what they need, their communication becomes clearer.

Listen to and respect ALL the staff – direct care, administrative support, human resources, development, marketing, maintenance, business office, chaplain, therapists, and leadership.  People in all levels of Intermountain programs do the incredibly hard work, day to day, week to week to engage and heal these children and to support those who heal the children. They raise the money, keep the grounds clean, the phones answered, the hope alive.  They send the bills and help us negotiate difficult relationships with each other.  They help us feel God’s presence; they give us direction and guidance in hard and in good financial times.  They keep the computers running even when we want to toss them out the window.  And those at the center bring joy and hope back to the children who have lost both.   Those staff who work directly with children and youth continue to answer Brother Van’s call of 110 years ago:  “to challenge the suffering of children.”

Stay humble but know that you have gifts to give others.  Intermountain has blessed me in incalculable ways, not the least of which has been the opportunity to lead and create.  With staff, we have created a treatment approach that honors developmental psychology, trauma-informed care and the healing power of relationships.  Staff have taught me and I have taught others in important spheres of influence – legislators, attorneys, judges, physicians, mental health professionals, nurses, child advocates, students and leaders of programs in the US and abroad.

Listen to the wisdom of others, for example:

Jim FitzGerald, CEO, has been at Intermountain “since the Earth was cooling” these 39 years and through his direct care experience, his leadership and vision, he has directed the tremendous growth of Intermountain.  When I came, we served 24 children in one program in one location.  In 2016, we served over 1500 children in 14 different services in 17 locations in 3 cities.  It is his wisdom that has helped me in tough times. To wit:

“Would you rather be right or successful?” is a phrase that has gotten me out of more than one intractable battle.

“We have to be someone for the children, not do something to them,” is a way of seeing the needs of children rather than getting them to “obey.”

“It isn’t about whether the child has been good, but whether it is good for the child,” has been a good reminder of how to be in any relationship when we need a fresh start, but what we want is to drive a point home or punish.

“You can’t take a child where you can’t go.”  If you haven’t understood your own wounds and vulnerabilities, you won’t be able to connect deeply with the child you’re trying to help.  Healer, know thyself.

Mitch Johnson was a beloved agency leader who died too young in 2016, after 35 years at Intermountain. He gave many of us memorable ways of seeing children, engaging with them and keeping perspective.  Some of his many memorable lines:

“Children argue with adults who will argue with them.”

“You live with what you tolerate.”

“Control is an illusion.”

“Our job is not to love the children; our job is to teach the children that they are loveable.”

“There’s nothing common about common sense.”

“Failure is just another opportunity to learn.”

“Who gave them (the children) permission to be emotionally disturbed?”

So, where do we go from here – what is the leap forward?  Intermountain has remarkable young staff who are ready to take us forward with new ideas based on the solid concepts that have served Intermountain well.  These young upstart clinical program and clinical directors, young senior leaders, direct care supervisors and seasoned line staff have the enthusiasm and energy to keep us moving despite the challenges. It is our strong and persistent clinical supervision of psychotherapists and of direct care that keeps us strong even as we grow in unknown new directions.

But all of these wonderful people would not be enough if we did not sustain the foundations built by those who came before, among them Brother Van, Ellen Piper, Bob Wix, and Hugh Black, to name a few.  Our mission of Healing through Healthy Relationships is simple in words, but intricate in delivery in a modern society in which many experience relational poverty.  Our guiding principles are equally simple: “In all that we do, create a supportive environment that promotes healthy change and growth”; and “Working with others, improve society’s ability to provide prevention, protection, treatment, and permanency for all struggling children, youth, and families.”   Our persistent challenge is to do hold to these principles in an economic and political environment that is conflicted, deprived and anxious.

Just as I stood on the shoulders of my predecessors, so our new leaders stand on my and my compatriots’ shoulders.   We all have a time to get out of the way, and when I began to hear my words from others’ mouths, I knew it was time.  My deepest thanks to Jim FitzGerald, the Board of Directors, the incredible staff and the children for allowing me such a fulfilling way to serve.

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