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Prestera History

The History of Prestera Center – 45 Years Old!

Community mental health services were sparse in West Virginia until development and implementation of the Community Mental Health Act. State owned and operated inpatient “lunatic asylums” provided most mental health care in West Virginia before 1960.

The history of community based mental health programs began with the late President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, President Kennedy submitted the nation’s first Presidential message on mental health issues. Congress passed the “Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act” also also known as the “Community Mental Health Act of 1963”. That started a new era in Federal support for mental health services. The Act assured access to community mental health programs for all Americans, during a time when psychiatric medications were more commonly used to treat mental illness than procedures like sterilization, lobotomy, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. President Kennedy had a mentally ill sister named Rose Marie Kennedy or “Rosemary”. Rosemary Kennedy underwent a pre-frontal lobotomy at age 23 for her violent mood swings, violent outbursts, “convulsive rages” and tantrums which left her permanently incapacitated and institutionalized until she died of natural causes at age 87 in 2005. It may not be purely coincidental that the Community Mental Health Act was introduced by her older brother.

The Mental Health Act of the early 1960’s called for the development of regional mental health centers throughout the State, so people across all states in the US would have access to mental health services. Mental health clinics emerged and applied for federal staffing grants to initiate comprehensive community mental health centers across the country.

The Community Mental Health Center serving Cabell, Lincoln, Mason, and Wayne Counties was first formed as the Southwestern Comprehensive Mental Health Center on March 28, 1967. The original incorporators included Michael R. Prestera, Harold A. LaParl, C.T. Mitchell, Milton T. Herndon, Elizabeth Wolfe, Lewis G. Mills, Barney Asbury, and George W. Johnson. Mr. Michael Prestera served as the organization's first president, until his death in 1970. Mr. Prestera successfully organized a campaign which moved this catchment area from the bottom of the State priority list for community mental health services to near the top, in order to obtain a federal construction grant for the Center. The Board of Directors approved an amendment to change the corporate name to Prestera Center for Mental Health Services, Inc., in April 1981, to honor Mr. Prestera’s dedication.

Construction for Prestera Center’s main offices in Huntington began with ground breaking ceremonies in June 1968. The building is owned by the State of West Virginia, on land formerly owned by Marshall University. In addition to the federal construction grant, the Switzer Foundation provided $25,000 for the project. The Center's Lecture Hall is named after the benefactor of that Foundation.

Prestera Center is a non-profit organization, funded through a unique blend of federal, state, and local tax funds, grants, contracts, Medicaid and Medicare, with some other third-party providers or private pay. The Prestera Foundation, a separate non-profit entity, was created in 1987 to increase public awareness and raise private support for Prestera programs and services.

An important element of Prestera Center has been its response to community needs. Frequently, this has entailed new Prestera programs; other times it has resulted in new programs or services being developed by others in the community. The response to the community has come through the Board of Directors and through advisory groups to the Board and staff.

New programs and services that Prestera Center has added over time include specific education and treatment programs, federal grant projects, intensive treatment programs, consultation to other agencies and support groups, implementation of emergency and community support services 24/7/365, supportive housing and residential programs, collaborations with primary care centers, full time services in rural counties, a full continuum of treatment for addictions recovery from detox through short-term and long-term residential treatment and halfway houses for substance abusers, just to name a few.

With the bankruptcy of Shawnee Hills Community Mental Health Center, Prestera Center expanded mental health and addictions treatment services in Putnam, Kanawha, Boone and Clay counties into its family of services in May 2002. Prestera Center made a commitment to the clients of Shawnee Hills that their services would not be interrupted. The staff were hired immediately as Prestera Center employees.

Ten years later, there are 53 Prestera Center locations across the eight county region, making it the largest mental health and addictions services provider in the State of West Virginia. Annually, Prestera Center serves 19,000 adults, children and families each year and is one of the state’s top employers with 850 employees.

After twenty-two years of dedicated service to our communities, the President and CEO of Prestera Center, Bob Hansen, has announced his retirement effective September 30, 2012. The Board of Directors are searching for the next CEO to lead the organization to new heights. Mr. Hansen has contributed to explosive growth during his service. For example, when Mr. Hansen arrived at Prestera Center, addictions treatment services consisted of one outpatient therapist, a DUI Safety and Treatment Program that helped DUI offenders become reinstated drivers, and a 10-bed transitional living facility for men. The organization had fallen to the verge of bankruptcy. Mr. Hansen and the dedicated staff turned Prestera Center into a thriving, growing organization.

As Prestera looks to the future, it is apparent that mental health and substance abuse problems affect more West Virginians than ever before. Our goal is to serve everyone regardless of their ability to pay and to continue to develop programs in response to needs in our communities. Since 1967, Prestera Center has been a part of our community and we promise to continue providing the high quality services you expect.

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