NORTH TAMPA — To professionals in the mental health care arena, the names Northside Mental Health Center and Marsha Lewis Brown are practically inseparable.
Her long-term, intimate association with the agency, many say, has been the key to its success.
However, Lewis Brown's 40-year storied career with Northside — which recently changed its name to Northside Behavioral Health Center and earlier this year came under the management team of BayCare Health Systems — came to an end last month when Brown celebrated her retirement.
With undergraduate and master's degrees in social work from Florida State University, Lewis Brown joined Northside in 1976, the year the not-for-profit agency was established on the University of South Florida campus.
She began as a mental health therapist and worked her way up the chain of command to deputy director in 1984. Three years later, she took over the helm as Northside's executive director/CEO.
Sensing the need for a larger space and more visibility to serve patients with mental health and substance abuse problems, Lewis Brown set out to seek the necessary funding to move Northside off the USF campus to a site of its own.
Throughout the next several years, she lobbied the Florida Legislature for money to purchase a parcel of nearby Hillsborough County-owned land she and the board had their eyes on, plus funds to construct a new facility.
Her vision came to fruition in 1992 when Northside opened the doors of a new $3 million, 42,000-square-foot building at 12512 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., which all these years later continues to be the agency's home base.
"That was one of my proudest achievements," said Lewis Brown, who noted the same can also be said for her being Florida's first African-American woman charged with overseeing a free-standing mental hospital.
Having the endorsement of the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and gaining approval to accept Medicaid and Medicare insurance, making Northside the first agency in the area to do so, are also among Lewis Brown's most gratifying accomplishments.
"Northside sets the standard for the best practices in mental health treatment, while making mental health care affordable and accessible to individuals and families and building a safer, healthier community," she said.
Today, close to 5,000 patients a year are treated at Northside either as inpatients, outpatients, in their homes or in its two off-site group homes.
Over the years Lewis Brown has also held numerous leadership positions in professional and civic organizations and received accolades throughout the state of Florida for her work in the mental health field.
Northside associate director Elaine Churton worked closely with Lewis Brown for 21 years.
"Marsha has really been a wonderful professional mentor to me and she has such a great way of portraying leadership," she said. "It's been such an honor to work with her and we will miss her greatly."
Gary Vitacco-Robles, coordinator of Northside's children's outpatient services, also has had a close relationship with Lewis Brown during his 30 years at the center.
"She's been a very strong leader who's always had an open-door policy and she really reached out to all of the staff," he said. "I've always felt appreciated and acknowledged for my work."
Cindy Kocher, who retired in 2014 as Northside's human resource director, has known Lewis Brown since 1984, the year she began her three-decades-long career at the center.
"Marsha was very much invested in hiring really qualified staff and providing quality service," said Kocher, who noted Northside was the first agency in the Tampa Bay area to be accredited by JCAHO.
"She is very bright and extremely good at designing and developing programs, and she also had a tendency to create loyalty," Kocher added. "Once a month during new staff orientations she would always tell people, 'We are a family.' "
Lewis Brown said she is fortunate to have had a great staff as well as strong supporters of the agency.
"I leave with a feeling that I've made a difference and that we have had a reputation for being a quality organization."
Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]