How to Build Good Samaritans

The story of helping those in the greatest need.

The room is awash with light. Streaming in from two large windows, filling the homey space with warmth. Joyce Menchinger herself exudes warmth with or without the sun’s presence.

She stands in the entryway. Joyce is soft-spoken and kind. It would be readily apparent to anyone after just minutes that she is the sort of person you’d want to clone in the mental health field. She is patient, humble, and smart as a whip. Before sitting, she offers a tour of the facility.

The building was proud. A place to find comfort and treatment for the mind ought to be proud.

A bright and earthy-colored, two-story building on the corner of 3rd and High, smack dab in the center of Elkhart. Beautiful wood floors and an expansive foyer felt like you were walking into an upper-class historic home. White trim and neutral walls made the space feel rich and clean. Never for a moment would someone think they had entered a mental health facility, and that was the beauty of the space.

Joyce believes in the importance of viewing mental health with the same weight as we do physical health. Samaritan Health and Living Center was founded on a similar principle, to treat the whole person — mind, body, and spirit. While much of the work performed here at Samaritan Center deals with the mind, that lens, that perspective of the whole person, provides an important framework in which to practice.

She continues to show off each space, like a first-time homeowner so proud of each detail. Each room of the space is large and inviting. Smaller offices provide perfect meeting spaces for individual, couples, or family therapy. The spaces all personalized to the taste of the dozen or so licensed staff. Wall art, standing desks, furniture, plants, rugs, each tells the story of the person behind it.

Larger rooms provide space for group treatments and meetings, an important part of the mental health process. Other offices are retrofitted with special waiting areas. The areas are enclosed with knee-walls and allow children and parents to be attended to privately. The space is amazing, a thing of beauty. And no detail was neglected. Around back, a more private entrance allows for some anonymity in the process. Through and through, the Samaritan Center was laid out to help people in any way.

Joyce finally enters an office with a familiar name on the door. Her office is bright and timeless. Large white trim and crown molding offset warm gray walls. Colorful art lines the walls opposite various diplomas and commendations. Greenery gives life to the space, and small personal touches give it a sense of home. Joyce has put her signature on the space. Dozens of perfectly organized dolls and figurines line shelves, play atop tables, and sit in various nooks and crannies of the office.

A seasoned expert at “play therapy,” Joyce had grown a fondness for her tools that turned practice into a unique collection. The kids all loved it, and it was clear from her perfect organizational system that Joyce’s eye for detail made her amazing at her job. That job was as a licensed therapist, a career that she had practiced and perfected (though she’d never admit it) for decades. Her home away from home was called Samaritan Health and Living Center, the organization to which she has dedicated herself for over 15 of those years.

She sits lightly on the most unusual accent chair. Almost made to look like a patchwork of materials, it is bright and modern but still holds in it a rustic charm, an analog to the building itself.

Joyce’s chair tells a story of its own. It reminds a person of the famous Dolly Parton song “Coat of Many Colors.” The song — which Dolly wrote on a laundromat receipt in the back of a tour van — told the story of a coat her mother had patched together from rags handed down to her. In the song, Dolly’s mom told her the story of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors as she handed the pieced-together coat to her daughter. None the wiser, Dolly excitedly went to school with her magical coat only to be the butt of jokes and insults. But those kids could never understand the value of the coat and what it meant to her. It was the symbol of her mom’s love, one of family, of home.

Like that coat, the Samaritan Center has been the product of hard work, endless heart, and very little physical treasure. The Center was born of a love for community. Formed in 1972 by a physician (Burton Kintner, M.D.), a pastor (William J. Vamos), and a Reverend (R.J. Ross), the Samaritan Center was the brainchild of Knitner, who had seen an uptick in curious cases at his practice. He was seeing more and more patients who seemed to be suffering as much from mental stress as from any known physical ailment. He worried about the future of his hometown as the stress on an average family — especially those at or below the poverty line — grew with each passing year.

Believing strongly in the relationship between faith and health, he sought the guidance of his pastor and was eventually connected to Reverend Ross. Together, they concocted an idea for a center that would focus on the mind and spirit in equal measure to how Dr. Kintner focused on the body. Ross, a trained counselor, had the managerial know-how and the understanding of mental health to get the new idea off the ground.

Like that coat of many colors, the Center was born of humble means. It was a meager $500 and a church basement that launched the idea. And, like that coat, its history wasn’t without challenges. But an undying love for home and a belief in the power of holistic healthcare has built the Samaritan Center up over these decades. Indeed, in 40 years, the Samaritan ideal has launched over 80 Samaritan Center offices serving over 300 communities around the world.

In its birthplace, where Kintner and Ross called home, the Center’s coat was threadbare and faded. The understated beginnings made sense in an era when mental health was taboo. Church basements and offices were anonymous and provided cover. But today, the stigma over mental health is dissipating. Samaritan H&LC won’t hide any longer, but now boldly states its services to the world.

In 2013, a regional study found that adequate mental health care was the most under-resourced service in the Elkhart County area. That same study saw 86% of respondents cite a lack of access to mental health care as a significant problem in the county. In Elkhart, at the same time, 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children suffered a mental disorder. It was time for The Samaritan Center to take its rightful position in the spotlight.

Call it divine intervention, call it fate, call it what you will. Just as leaders at Samaritan began planning an expansion, one of the city’s most notable properties was made available. Thanks to a $780,000 project to acquire and renovate the property, and an $80,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, it will continue to shape and impact culture and progress.

Now a permanent fixture in the community, the center can continue to address the whole person, while providing the community with much-needed access to quality, stigma-free mental healthcare. The Samaritan Center can expand its missional role to be the expression of the love of God through a ministry of helping people under stress.

311 W. High has been completely revitalized. In Joyce’s office, her chair of many colors tells a story on behalf of many who have sat across from it. Beaten down by life, misunderstood, and rough around the edges. Some saddened by a great loss, others by misfiring neurons. Some anxious or upset. Some in need of help maintaining relationships. Some, maintaining sanity. Some, just maintaining equilibrium. The many folks who have sat across from Joyce Menchinger all share a common bond: They are all good at their core. They all have value, even when others don’t see it; even when they themselves don’t see it. Despite the slings and arrows of the worst that humanity has to offer them, they know they are safe at home. They are safe here at the Samaritan Center. And, with a little luck and hard work, Elkhart County will be safer as home to us all.

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