By Peter H. Milliken
A retired Marine colonel is using the leadership skills he cultivated during his 25-year military career to take a local community mental health and recovery agency in some new directions.
Brian M. Kennedy, a former helicopter gunship pilot who flew more than 220 combat missions, and a former light attack helicopter squadron commander, became director of the Turning Point Counseling Center on June 10.
His leadership there began shortly after the departure of Turning Point’s previous executive director, Joseph Sylvester, who had been with the agency for more than 15 years.
“What made it appealing to me was how Turning Point really is the mainstay in the community that helps people at their worst” times of mental illness, Kennedy said. “Most of what I enjoy doing is helping people,” he added.
“Flying is probably 10 percent of what you do in uniform, especially if you’re in command. The rest of it is taking care of your people,” he observed. “This was my calling, or my way to continue service” in civilian life, he said of his role at Turning Point.
“I’ve seen times where the budget was not abundant, where we made do with less, where we had the opportunity to carry a unit or an agency on our backs and propel it forward to something greater than it was,” he said of how his Marine experience prepared him for his current role.
‘Leadership is leadership’
“Leadership is leadership,” whether it’s in military or civilian life, he said. “This is the front line of mental health,” he said of Turning Point.
“As a squadron leader, he had to focus a lot on the morale of the men, because they were in combat, and I think he translated that into the day-to-day operations of the mental health center,” said Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, a major funding source for Turning Point.
“If Brian says he’s going to accomplish something, he accomplishes it,” Piccirilli said, adding that Kennedy gives “very succinct” reports to the county board.
“Brian has the compassion, and I think his military discipline is focused on goals,” Piccirilli said.
In his first seven months in charge, Kennedy has already announced major changes.
To broaden access to life-saving heroin detoxification, Kennedy made 16 of the non-profit agency’s 18 crisis unit beds available for that purpose, fulfilling a project that was being planned before Kennedy joined the agency.
In doing so, he announced that Turning Point, the Neil Kennedy Recovery Center and Meridian HealthCare had launched a partnership to ensure access to detoxification.
“If I have 16 beds and I am not leveraging myself into the opioid epidemic, then I’m taking an asset like a life ring and I’m just sitting over here and I’m watching people drown. To me, that’s not ethical,” Kennedy said.
However, he acknowledged: “There’s a business side to that. If I have empty beds, I’m going to do whatever I have to, to fill those beds from a business perspective.”
AGENCY NAME CHANGE
Consistent with the agency partnership and Turning Point’s detox role, Kennedy announced a name change for his agency from Turning Point Counseling Services Inc. to Turning Point Counseling and Recovery.
“If there’s a substance [abuse] issue, more than likely, there’s also an underlying mental health issue, so we intend to address both of those,” he said.
Kennedy also announced he’s prepared to make Turning Point crisis unit beds available this winter for emergency shelter for homeless people, if necessary.
Kennedy also hired Alicia L. Siler as Turning Point’s development and outreach director to convey the agency’s message to the public, write grant applications and strengthen the agency’s partnerships with other institutions, including Youngstown State University, whose campus abuts the agency’s headquarters.
Siler, who recently received her master’s degree in communication from YSU, called Kennedy “a creative visionary” and “an active listener,” who leads by example.
STAFF MORALE BOOSTER
To boost staff morale, Kennedy organized a holiday party for agency staff and their families – something that hadn’t occurred at that agency in many years.
On his resume, Kennedy candidly admits he lacks training in behavioral health care, but says his expertise in leadership and team building overcomes that.
Piccirilli said it’s becoming common for executive directors of community mental health and recovery agencies not to have training in behavioral health care.
“Mental health agencies have to be more businesslike than they were in the past, and several of our agencies are headed by people with business backgrounds,” Piccirilli said.
“With managed care getting involved and Medicaid expansion, it’s actually running a business. You’ve got to deal with productivity of staff,” and reduction in funding, Piccirilli observed. “They are competing with for-profit mental health centers,” he explained.
“I have to set the right conditions for the individuals that have that (behavioral health care) expertise to thrive and do their job and do it appropriately,” Kennedy said of his role as executive director.
Although he must look at the big picture as the agency’s top boss, no detail is too small for him to notice.
He called attention to wrinkled office carpeting, a potential tripping hazard, which he wants to replace.
Realizing the agency never gets a second chance to make a first impression on visitors, he replaced the floor and painted the walls in the agency’s Belmont Avenue reception room.
“I want them, when they walk in this door, to think and feel that they’re in the place where they can get the very best health care that can be had,” Kennedy said of agency clients.
Using grant money, Kennedy said he plans to have a local artist, who has painted other murals in Youngstown, paint a mural in the agency’s entry foyer.