25 Years | 25 Stories – Dr. Nancy Gary

Dr. Nancy Gary, Lifetime Board Member

When the Mental Health Center of Denver opened on July 1, 1989, Dr. Nancy Gary began her service on the board of directors. When her initial terms ended after nine years, she was awarded Lifetime Board Member status. She is the only board member who has served throughout the organization’s full 25-year history. Dr. Gary and her husband, Sam Gary, are among Colorado’s foremost philanthropic families. Through The Piton Foundation they have invested tens of millions of dollars to improve the lives of children and families across Colorado.

When I started my career, I thought I would go into the medical field. I got my start in ambulatory pediatrics with a Master’s in Child Health. I worked on the child protection team, but we never knew what happened to the children we evaluated.  So many people were falling through the cracks and access to care was difficult. Many of the professionals for children were paid out of pocket, and most families couldn’t afford the cost. I discovered that I was dealing with psychosocial issues much more than medical issues, so I went back to school and became a licensed clinical psychologist.

At a dinner party, I was told that Denver’s mayor, Federico Peña, was forming a Mental Health Commission to improve the whole system, and I said I wanted to be a part of it. I remember meeting at Swanee Hunt’s farmhouse in the mountains for a retreat. We were sitting around on the floor eating animal crackers, drinking milk and talking about the kind of mental health system we wanted. Dr. Gary May (chair of the Mental Health Commission, later a board member of the Mental Health Center of Denver) wrote everything down on a flip chart.

In the beginning, we had the same struggles as with any new organization—trying to make what we were into what we wanted to be. There were some frustrations. Because there was a long waiting list for children, some of my colleagues and I offered our help pro bono, but no one ever got back to us. After several years, I was put in charge of finding the right person to lead the organization, and I asked one of my colleagues about Dr. Carl Clark. I was told, “You’d be lucky to get him.” He said yes, and since then the organization has run smoothly and has moved into the future with mental health care.

We have had many highlights. I first heard the term “integrated care” when we were building the Recovery Center. A woman who was a client, on her first visit to the Recovery Center, walked in and said, “They did this for us!” It was so important for our consumers to feel respected and that there was a home for both their physical and mental health. Dr. Clark could now say, “Let me take you across the hall to our medical department,” and assure all health care needs were met.

Another milestone was starting programs for young children. It’s hard to find trained professionals who work with children and their families. The new children’s center (Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, opening in 2015) will be another landmark accomplishment. The importance of care in early childhood needs to be recognized. We need a place where parents can go and not face stigma, and where there would be trained professionals for the youngest children and their families. Dr. Lydia Prado, who heads Child and Family Services, designed the program and facility. She has wonderful ideas for the care of children and families.

My message to other donors is this: If you are interested in mental health, here is where the action is. People come from all over the United States, as well as internationally, to find out what we do at the Mental Health Center of Denver and how we do it. We are moving into the future with creative and different ideas that bring stability for adults, children and families.

I am on this board for the long haul. As the board has grown, it has gotten stronger, as has the board leadership. All the board members work well with one another and with staff. I love this organization, the people who work here, and what they do. Right from the beginning, we were aiming to be the best and I think we are.