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On eve of retirement, Washburn CEO Steve Lepinski reflects on 30 years of change

Steve Lepinski

In 1987, when Steve Lepinski started working at Washburn Center for Children, the Minneapolis-based children’s mental health center had a  $1.5 million annual budget and a staff of around 30.

When Lepinski retires on Feb. 28 after 30 years as CEO, in many ways Washburn will be a changed place, with a new building, a staff of 170 and an annual budget of $15 million.

During his tenure, Lepinski, 69, has seen many changes in societal attitudes about mental illness in children. The number of children and families his organization serves has doubled in the last eight years. And with the establishment of its United Health Foundation Training Institute, Washburn has grown into a nationally respected resource of evidence-based training for mental health professionals.

When we spoke last week, Lepinski modestly downplayed his role in the nonprofit’s expansion.

“Washburn is currently a 133-year-old organization,” he said. “It was around for a little more than 100 years before me and it will be around for many years after me. I am only part of a long history [PDF], just one small piece of our story.”

MinnPost: What made you decide that this was the best time to retire?

Steve Lepinski: I don’t feel decrepit or anything. I still have good energy. But when we started our capital campaign a few years ago, people started asking, “Are you thinking you’re going to retire when the campaign is wrapped up?” Eventually it started to seem like the right time. I know I’m ready to pass the baton at Washburn. And everyone here is ready for the transition.   

MP: Under your leadership, Washburn has grown significantly in size and influence. Was that your goal from the beginning?

SL:  Growth wasn’t my focus, and we haven’t always moved in that direction. Our growth hasn’t always been a straight line. We had a couple of years there where we lost money, closed programs and laid off staff.

MP: In what other ways has the organization changed during your tenure?

SL: During my time here we made a decision to focus completely on children’s mental health. Earlier in our history we also had a strong focus on learning disabilities. This was before schools were doing as much with learning disabilities as they do now. Eventually we decided we wanted to be an important resource for this community around children’s mental health, and we narrowed our focus on that.

MP: Probably the most visible change that happened during your time at Washburn was the funding and construction of the organization’s new headquarters at 1100 Glenwood Ave., which was completed in 2014. Do you feel this project was essential to Washburn’s ongoing health?

SL: Way back in 2005, when we did some strategic planning, we very clearly decided that we needed short-term facility solutions and we also needed to think about long-term facility solutions. When we did another strategic plan in 2008 we committed to making a facility change. We explored options that included everything from renting or buying a different building to building a new building. As we explored our options, we eventually decided to launch a capital campaign and build a building from scratch.

The building is symbolic of our place in the community. I remember a campaign consultant we worked with many years ago back when we were in our old building on Nicollet Ave. Even then the idea of being a center of excellence in children’s mental health was being bandied about. I remember the consultant then saying to me, “This building doesn’t look like a center of excellence.” Now people look at the facility and they see that it lives up to its reputation.

MP: What do you like most about the building?

SL: We were able to step back and think about how if we were going to build a children’s mental health facility from scratch, what would like it to look like, what it would need to include.

It is a great facility for our staff. It is warm and welcoming for the families that come here. It is an example of the community stepping up and saying, “We need a facility like this to improve the mental health of our children.”

The building is important to what we do, but just as important is the outstanding staff and the program models that we have developed here. Also important is the difference we are able to make in our clients’ lives. That all adds up to contribute to the fact that we are now one of the national leaders in children’s mental health.

MP: How have societal attitudes about children and mental illness changed during your career?

SL: I think attitudes about mental health have changed a lot over the last 30 years. But we still have a little way to go. There has always been a fair amount of stigma around children’s mental health. Now I think our communication around this topic is much more open. Parents get together and learn about their children’s concerns. They understand ADHD. They understand depression. They understand anxiety. It is more common for parents to say, “My say my kid has a problem. We got help. It made a difference.” There has been a huge shift.

Another thing that has changed in a positive way is we know so much more about childhood development, how the brain functions, how the brain is impacted by things like trauma. We have studied anxiety, depression, attachment disorders. This study has developed into evidence-based treatment practices. Those things just weren’t as available 30 years ago. We also have a much better understanding of early-childhood mental health. There was a time when someone might have asked,  “Could a 3- or 4-year-old child really have a mental health issue?” We understand those issues so much better now.

MP: You hear so much about the increased number mental health diagnoses in American children. Why is that? Is this a side effect of our growing openness about our mental health?

SL:  There has been an increase. I think part of it is caused by more awareness. These days we see symptoms in children and we think it might be a mental health issue. That’s good. When I grew up in the ’50s in Brainerd, we didn’t think of kids having mental health disorders. Adults were more inclined to think that kids’ mental health symptoms were simply bad behavior.

The other element that plays into increased mental health diagnoses is the changing pace of life. There are different types of stressors nowadays. Life is fast-paced. Both parents usually work outside of the home. That adds an element of stress. And if a family is impoverished, that can be an exacerbator of mental health issues. And another cause may also be environmental issues like allergies or the air we breathe or the water we drink or the additives in our food.

MP: What can you tell me about Tom Steinmetz, your successor?

SL: We were fortunate at Washburn to have an internal candidate. Tom has been working here for 20 years. He’s highly skilled and ready to do the job. We’ve been bringing him along for years to help him be the candidate. We accelerated that transition a year ago. He’s been going to the meetings, meeting with the community and donors. We were fortunate we had someone who was interested and qualified for the job. Tom’s all of those things. And he’s in his mid-40s, so he’s got a lot of time left to serve.

MP: Are there any tasks you’d like to accomplish before you retire?

SL: I think I am past that at this point. I realize there are all sorts of unfinished things left to do at Washburn, but that’s the way of the world. I hope that I’ve created enough of a framework here so that things will be identified and people selected from the board and leadership to pick them up and move them forward. I’m excited about the future here.

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