In six years as president of its board of directors, Dan Zarecky has made an enormous imprint on NAMI Colorado Springs. Relying on a deep belief in the organization’s mission, as well as a humble steadfastness and a brilliantly understated sense of humor, Dan has overseen the organization’s tripling of both programming and revenue between 2013 and 2019.
Meanwhile, from his position as group CEO for Strategic Behavioral Health (parent company of Peak View Behavioral Health), he has also served as an influential NAMI ambassador inside the local for-profit mental health world.
All of which makes two recent changes feel earthshaking here at NAMI. Not only was Dan term-limited off of the NAMI board this summer, but he also just accepted a position as CEO of Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital in Lancaster, Penn. He and his wife, Debra — who, like Dan, has been a generous personal donor to NAMI — are planning on relocating before the holidays.
It has been a whirlwind few weeks. But even with everything he’s had going on, Dan was willing recently to take a few minutes to talk about his time at NAMI, and his hopes for the organization’s future.
Take us back six years. What were the circumstances that brought you to join the NAMI board?
It really was my first encounter with Lori [Jarvis-Steinwert], soon after she began as executive director. We were at a meeting and got to talking about NAMI and what I do in the private sector with inpatient and outpatient treatment. I didn't think much of it — it was more of a networking thing. But you know, Lori’s a little schemer [laughs], which I didn’t know at the time.
She waited a little bit, about three or four weeks, and then she invited me to lunch. We talked more in depth about NAMI, and she asked. The biggest thing I saw was the enormous potential — the good work that NAMI was already doing in our community, but also the enormous potential of what more it could do, as it related to mental illness and education.
I told her I needed a little bit of time to think about it, because I didn't want to commit to anything I couldn't give time to. But obviously I decided to come on board.
As you got to know the organization from the inside, what left an impression?
What struck me was how the organization was in a transition period. It was very grassroots, with a lot of board members who were very hands-on, and a lot of volunteers. Some folks were leaving the board, and they were looking for folks to step into board positions. Money was very tight. I remember distinctly every fall, scrambling to make budget — literally having to send out a plea to folks to donate.
I was impressed by the work the organization already had done. But to be able to grow NAMI, and to have a bigger impact on our community, we had to make some changes. And I think the changes were the right ones. The biggest one was actually before I got there, when NAMI got a grant to hire an executive director and hired Lori.
How did you envision NAMI complementing the work that you were doing at Peak View?
At first, I did not see all of what NAMI was going to do for Peak View, specifically — the positive impact in terms of what NAMI would give to family members. That support, that education. But where we were unable to provide certain services, NAMI was there. Especially after discharge, but even at the beginning, when a loved one would present themselves in our inpatient for the first time.
You often have family members struggling with the whole idea of mental illness, asking, “What is this?” It’s because our system is our system — we do a poor job at times supporting the family and educating the family, and NAMI stepped up to the plate in a big way. We saw some of the families struggling with understanding an illness and what to do, and the first thing out of our mouths would be, “You need to know about Family-to-Family,” or another program that NAMI had. Honestly, it was a match made in heaven.
You've been doing this work for almost 30 years. Where have you seen the biggest changes in the mental health world?
It's gotten better as it relates to folks being able to get help, but it's not even close to being where it needs to be. With what's known as Obamacare, people are able to get better access. But when I look back over the last 30 years, it's up and down. Politics plays a part: At the state level and nationally, it’s, “What’s the priority?” And it seems that mental health services are always the ones that are sacrificed. It's taboo, especially depending on the area you live in.
"It seems like mental health services
are always the ones that are sacrificed."
It's hard to sum up the changes because they just ebb and flow with politics. Our current administration wants to hang all of these mass shootings on mental illness. That might be the case in some instances, but it's not the case in all of them.
I think the biggest change I've seen is that, yes, there are definitely more inroads and services provided, and better access. But it could be a lot better. And I think that's where NAMI comes into play, and other organizations, continuing to push and to have folks in charge understand that mental illness isn't going away. It’s been in our society from Day One — it's just been called different things.
Shifting gears for just a second, I wondered if you could talk about early diagnosis and treatment. How essential is it to get in there soon after someone starts struggling with a mental health condition?
It's critical. The earlier you get in, it's better for the patient and it's better for the family, to be able to process exactly what's going on.
I just had a call the other day from parents who, three years ago, came into Peak View. At that time, they were in denial. They just didn't want to admit that their child had a mental illness. They thought it was behavioral. They changed schools, they were going through all the motions, because of the stigma of it all.
Through a lot of education — and I do believe they were connected with NAMI, too — they finally came to a point, after inpatient and outpatient, where they realized the significance that accepting the diagnosis could have on their child's life. And he's doing wonderful right now.
With mental illness, there's no magic pill. Once you're diagnosed, you're going to live with mental illness the rest of your life. But it's not just the individual. The ones who care for that individual — the family, the loved ones — also have to be able to work through the process. If it goes undiagnosed for a long time ... well, that's why in our correctional facilities, close to 60 percent of inmates are dealing with some form of mental illness.
At NAMI breakfasts, we’ve had themes like ending the silence and breaking the stigma, and it's true. It's really true.
What have you been proudest of, in terms of the ways in which the organization has grown and evolved since you first joined the board?
When I first started, the services that were provided, such as Family-to-Family and others, really were adult-focused. Once we started to get into adolescent programs — our Ending the Silence school program, and then the Below the Surface campaign — that became the biggest thing I'm proud of.
Because you talk about early diagnosis — that's the population that we have to really zero in on, is our kids, and their parents and family. Not just the patient, but the whole family structure — the not understanding, the feeling ashamed.
What would you like to see happen at NAMI over the next six years?
Well, first off, NAMI needs its own permanent space. We started to talk about growing out of the house [from which NAMI recently moved, at 510 E. Willamette Ave.] years ago, but there were too many other priorities.
I think one of my biggest goals has been that NAMI would be financially stable — that during hard times, NAMI would be able to navigate fairly easily and not have to constantly be in crisis mode for finances. Lori has been a big part of that, of that drive. I think last fall was the first — or one of the first — that we didn't have to do that scramble and send our big donors a message saying, “We’re in financial crisis, please give.” That's a good feeling.
I'd also love to see NAMI expand out to more of the rural areas and get services out there. Another piece is being more of a voice when it comes to state legislation and getting in front of those folks.
But I've met some of the other NAMI affiliates in the state, and I've met several from elsewhere in the country, and hands-down, what NAMI Colorado Springs has done compared to the other ones, is phenomenal.
Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
I have been so impressed with the number of volunteers and the commitment and the passion of the staff. That's what makes NAMI Colorado Springs. Without the volunteers and the staff, NAMI wouldn’t be as successful as it is today.