New executive Gerard director shares hope for mental health care for youth

Published 8:51 am Monday, June 25, 2018

When Karen Wolf started her career in 1999 with a therapist job at Gerard Academy as soon as she graduated from college, she intended to leave after two years for another opportunity.

She never left, and took the reins at the school this past March as the new executive director.

“Watching the kids come in struggling and then watching them be kids is something that I enjoy,” the Aberdeen, South Dakota native said. “The people here are committed to helping each other, and that in itself is highly rewarding.”

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In the 1960s, Gerard Academy was founded as the “Gerard School” and was a treatment site specifically for care for children, according to the facilities’ website. Over the years, the academy was known as Gerard of Minnesota, Gerard Treatment Programs and now Gerard Academy.

The facilities sits on a 12-acre campus in Austin, and was the former Hormel Estate. In 2012, it was honored as Provider of the Year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The journey

Prior to Wolf’s leadership, Brent Henry served as the executive director and worked to expand the services provided so that there were more mental health options for children and families. The Bridging and Short-Term programs were developed in partnership with Dakota County, and in 2015, Gerard opened an outpatient program to serve children, teens, adults and families in the community to address school and county mental health service needs in the area.

Gerard Academy will be approaching its 50th anniversary in 2019, and Wolf has no plans on slowing Gerard’s trajectory of providing mental health services for those who need it most.

In June 2017, Wolf was named as the new associate director, where she worked closely with Henry under a close mentorship and was trained into the position prior to his retirement in March.

“(Henry’s) shoes are big to fill. I was so fortunate to have that time with him. I’m proud to serve the staff and provide the resources for them to do their jobs,” Wolf said. “I’m going to be building relationships and playing to their strengths. I feel that we have a great team right now and we’re fulfilling what we want to do. I’m hoping to continue providing vision and direction and keep going.”

Karen Wolfe talks about the need and concerns of approaching mental health needs.

Wolf previously served as a therapist, clinical supervisor and clinical director. She graduated from Mankato State University with a bachelor’s degree in corrections and a minor in sociology. She then went on to receive her master’s degree in community counseling from the same college. Prior to Gerard, Wolf worked with the Leo A. Hoffman Center and the Mankato Psychology Clinic.

Wolf stated that her biggest challenge as executive director stemmed from a decision in May that federal Medicaid will no longer take on the expense for patients in some of Minnesota’s residential mental health treatment centers.

This decision, comes as a harsh blow during a time where there’s already an existent shortage of treatment facilities for children. Even though the Minnesota Legislature agreed to use state dollars to offset the lost federal funding for the following year until the end of April 2019, Gov. Mark Dayton had vetoed a bill that would have extended the timeline by two months. Once this timeframe concludes, then the cost would have to be taken upon by individual counties where the children were residents of before going into treatment.

Around 11 of Minnesota’s residential treatment centers will be affected by these funding changes, such as the closing of a 30-bed in-patient treatment center for children by Catholic Charities. Gerard Academy, will possibly be see the effects later down the road. The academy has the capacity to serve around 93 people, and so far there are about 86 students residing on campus with a long extensive waiting list for admittance.

“There’s a level of uncertainty,” Wolf admitted. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with funding in the future. Individual counties would have to bear the cost if they have a kid here. Gerard Academy continues to be strong and we’re going to keep going despite the powers that be. We’d still be able to get money through the county and through private insurance, but we can’t access Medicaid. We knew it was coming. …counties are also strapped for cash too.”

Only a couple months into her new position, Wolf plans to continue educating the public and changing its perception of the youth who depend on Gerard Academy as a place to “heal.”

“We’re hoping that the kids return home and this (program) helps them and their families heal,” Wolf said. “It’s amazing to be a part of that and to help them.”