From a rushed start to fill a need, Birch Tree Communities, Inc. has thrived and grown over the past 30 years serving those with mental illness. 

"It was unique when it started and 30 years later there is nothing around like it," Chris Owen, director of marketing and business development, said. 

Birch Tree was founded on the campus of what was then known as the Benton Service Center, now Arkansas Health Center, in 1989 after a law was passed limiting which mentally ill patients could be housed in nursing homes. 

Birch Tree founder Tucker Steinmetz said under the law only those who could not move, feed themselves or could not go to the bathroom without assistance could live in nursing homes, which was where most mentally ill were housed at the time. That put many with mental illness with no place to go, including 39 at the Center. 

A short-term fix was put in place for nine months. Steinmetz was asked to run it, but after that time, there would be no funding. The woman in charge of the Division of Mental Health told him she didn't know what to do. 

A consultant who was working with the program hit on a solution. Start a non-profit organization that could care for the mentally ill. 

He had six weeks until funding was cut off to incorporate a non-profit and get things ready for it to take over their care. 

He said he was blessed with people along the way that helped from one person who helped get Medicaid payments through to another who helped him incorporate. 

When he tried to file for 501C-3 status, he filled out the papers wrong, but a woman at the department not only helped him get it fixed, she rushed it through to be done in only three weeks. 

"It was because she cared," he said. 

When it opened, someone donated $4,000 to purchase a van to transport the members. 

Everything was set up with no operating capitol. He had 39 members to house and feed and 32 employees to pay and he didn't know how he would do it. 

After applying some pressure through the Arkansas Gazette and a meeting of the Mental Health Directors Association, the Department of Mental Health came through with $150,000 grant until Medicaid could start paying. 

From there, Birch Tree was getting referrals from all over. They were swamped. 

"It was obvious we were going to have to grow," Steinmetz said. 

Birch Tree has grown to 11 communities across the state and eight program centers. 

Not only has Birch Tree expanded into other cities, not long after the program started, one determined member led the way for members to able to "move into town," which Steinmetz said meant Benton. 

Owen explained that both back then and now, the member is the head of their team. The organization has a rule, never talk about a member in front of them. Always talk to them. The team sets a plan for each member based on their goals, dreams and struggles. 

For a member called Betty, that dream was to live in town. Steinmetz set two interns on the project of finding her somewhere to live. 

He said the organization faced much opposition from people who didn't want someone like Betty living in their community, including a local church.  

Steinmetz described Betty as the "the epitome of why Birch is in business." Where she had previously lived, she was considered a problem patient. He said the real reason she was treated as a problem is she refused to give up her "personhood." 

Betty and Steinmetz built a friendship that last until she died two decades after she first became part of the Birch Tree family. 

The staff and leaders at Birch Tree still see building relationships with the members is a key to success. They also believe hope is essential to every member. 

Birch Tree believes "for every person living with mental illness, there is a real expectation of recovery." Its mission is "a satisfying life in the community" for its members. Steinmetz said what that means is different for each individual member. 

In each office on Birch Tree campuses, Owens said the Birch Intentions are on display. The intentions are guiding principals, Steinmetz wrote back when it first began. 

"In everything we do, we intend to be kind, to inspire hope, to respect and befriend men and women overwhelmed by life, to be just, to bring a measure of joy into every life we touch, to do no harm, to offer ourselves without discrimination, to serve with patience, persistence and forgiveness, not regarding symptoms of illness evidence of failure, to create an environment in which dreams are born, encouraged and pursued, to be a beginning, not an end."

"To me, this is what is at the heart of what we believe about service here," Steinmetz said. 

Current CEO Jack Keathley describes Birch Tree as a "program that strives to help severe mentally ill adults be the best they can be."

While it does take other diagnoses, primarily the patients have either schizophrenia or bi-polar disorders. 

"We provide a safe haven for a mentally ill person to live and receive services to help in recovery," he said. 

Under his leadership, Birch Tree has worked to prepare the organization as changes in the law related to Medicaid have been implemented. 

Some changes he is happy with, such as moving to a per diem pay model, he said frees staff up from documentation to spend more time with members.

Others have cause concerns. With the new Provider-Led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity model for Medicaid, Birch Tree essentially has to work with three insurance companies instead of one to get paid and what gets paid for has changed. 

Keathley knew changes were coming so Birch Tree has been cutting spending to ensure there is enough funding to continue. 

To celebrate 30 years, Birch Tree held a Family Day event at Tyndall Park. For the upcoming National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk, staff and members will wear T-shirts memorializing the anniversary. 

Birch Tree does not get funding from the state. The organization plans to bring back its golf tournament and hold other fundraisers. 

Birch Tree plans to continue serving and being part of the communities where they are located. 

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