Mary Koenig: looking for ways to help

Published June 2, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Public Citizen Health and Research Group published a Rating of State Programs in 1990. Let me quote to you one of their findings: "Florida has the most grossly inequitably funded psychiatric services of any state Something is fundamentally very wrong with this state public mental health system The state is serving at most a quarter of its mentally ill residents in community mental health centers (CMHCs) and the services offered this group are right out of the dark ages (CMHC) buildings are dilapidated, programs are rulebound, dehumanizing and inflexible, activities are boring and rarely rehabilitation-oriented, housing is virtually unavailable, and staff is so overloaded that the whole system is in a state of crisis.

"The only really exemplary services in the state come from two non-CMHC agencies, the Boley Foundation of St. Petersburg and Fellowship House in Miami, both of which offer psychosocial rehabilitation and an array of other services.

"In vocational rehabilitation, the model program for the state is clearly Boley in St. Petersburg, which offers skills training, in-house training in a variety of jobs, supported employment, and a monthly Job Club. If Florida would simply clone this program 30 or 40 times, the state would be a model for the nation."

Where did such a superior program come from? How did it happen here in St. Petersburg, a community not widely known for youthful zeal in social activism? Well, a lot of it can be tracked back to one name. You spell that name Mary Koenig.

None of it was here just 21 years ago. Back then, Mary Koenig was the founder and president of the Pinellas chapter of the Mental Health Association. Her late husband, my dear friend Dr. Alfred Koenig, had his psychiatric practice here. It was a time when a generous, longtime resident of St. Petersburg named Bessie Boley donated some money to a local social service organization in memory of her son and her husband. Bessie's friend, Ruth Mosher, convinced her she should use the money to endow a halfway house for the psychiatrically disabled who were trying to come back _ residents who could make it their home while they were trying to adjust to the stresses of society after coming out of the more sheltered

atmosphere of psychiatric hospitals. Mrs. Boley met, among others, with Mary's husband Alfred Koenig. That good doctor impressed on her how urgently this community needed such a halfway house.

So it was that Bessie Boley donated $25,000 to purchase the first facility, on Ninth Street N, to be used for a halfway house. Ruth Mosher and Ralph Haskell joined Mary Koenig on a team to establish Boley Manor as an independent entity spun off from the Pinellas Mental Health Association. So many others were among the pioneers Mary would want to credit _ Gerry Nickels, David Tudeen, Marti and David Deranian, and many more. But to Mary Koenig, Boley Manor became a special commitment that has defined her life. After Alfred's death, it seemed to me she redoubled her dedication to it as her particular memorial to her husband and his own life's work.

At first, the little Boley that Mary adopted and nursed could serve clients in only a few small group homes, many of them substandard rental units. Early on, she and the board decided to purchase facilities when possible, not rent them, to justify improvements.

Mary and these fellow pioneers went after federal, state, county and city funding as well as private sector donations to build the sturdy base that is now serving 500 clients at any one time here in our community.

That one little halfway house called Boley Manor started out in 1970 providing residential services to just 19 clients. Now it's a network of home-like places serving hundreds of clients based on a continuum of movement according to their needs _ from most supervision and support, to least; from group homes, to apartment units; through adult day schools and vocational training, to the day when they go back into the community as independent human beings, supported still by Boley and invited back to Saturday night Coffee House entertainments, to monthly dinners their case managers sponsor, to weekly dinners arranged by their Community Club, to membership in the Job Keepers Club that celebrates their successes.

When our social agencies became desperate for a place to send the homeless who were mentally ill, Boley opened its doors to them.

When it became clear that more than half of the severely mentally ill under 40 also had histories of substance abuse, Boley started up a special program to care for these dually diagnosed people.

The physical plant grew accordingly.

And while the bulk of the funding came from the state, helped by the federal and local governments, primarily for the residential and vocational programs, some very human needs were not being met _ needs for decent furnishings in the living quarters, needs for dental bills, clothing funds, medical necessities not being met otherwise. To help meet these personal needs, Mary Koenig took the lead in founding the Boley Angels, that blessed bunch who turned to the community and said to the private sector: Our people need your help.

That is background to this present day when we are gathered to celebrate the crowning achievement of two decades of commitment _ the dedication of these facilities as headquarters for the intensely human endeavor called Boley. And what could be more fitting than the naming of this place as the Mary R. Koenig Center.

You know the story of this land. A businessman named Edson T. Lewis moved to St. Petersburg in 1888 and lived in the mansion here until he died in 1948. His widow gave the property to Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd, in 1960.

She wanted it to be used as the college president's residence. But it was too distant from the campus, the college decided. So it sold the property and used the proceeds to build Lewis House on the campus. Dr. and Mrs. George Longstaff bought the property and established here the Adirondack Southern School for Girls. They administered that school for 20 years. Boley got assistance in its purchase of the property from an $80,000 grant from the city of St. Petersburg's Community Development Block Grant Program. After extensive renovation, these facilities now present themselves for our dedication as the Mary R. Koenig Center.

How proud she must be at seeing her name bestowed on this place, an honor fairly earned by her years of work and hope and service. But I know Mary so well that I know she would gladly forfeit all this personal recognition in return for getting just one letter of the sort that came to Boley a year and a half ago from a man named Alan G.

Listen to these words he wrote, and think what they must mean to Mary Koenig, who helped to make them possible:

"When I came to Boley, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had no one to turn to for any kind of support. I had only the clothes on my back, no money, and was in bad need of glasses. My first residence was Bay Park. I was to meet Cheryl Murphy, she was the lady that was to become my new case manager. This was the real turning point of my life. You may not know this, but she took money of her own and took me to the Thrift Store and got me so many clothes you would not believe it, also a pair of shoes. Next, she applied for Social Security for me and worked so hard on building a case for me. It worked, because in 30 days I was approved. Next, she got me glasses. Wow, how wonderful, I could see and read again. Then one spring day I moved (out). When I was in Boley I was on 10 different prescriptions. Today, I take nothing. I feel better than I have in my whole life. I am married now, have a nice apartment and everything is going great. I don't know what Boley's rate of independent living is, but put me down for one. Thank you."

Yes, thank you, Mary Koenig. We know what drives you. Alan's letter expresses it. You didn't come to this work looking for glory, just looking for ways to help people who need a hand.

Eugene Patterson is editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times. He delivered these comments at the dedication of the Mary R. Koenig Center in St. Petersburg on May 22.