I think this is a good example of how some individuals sadly end up in the jail systems. I’ll call her ‘D’. D was a successful musician working in the entertainment industry when the unexpected happened. A couple of years ago, she unintentionally attacked a co-worker and was incarcerated. During incarceration, she experienced multiple traumatic events. She was then diagnosed with a rare brain tumor which was determined to be causing the erratic behaviors. She had surgery to remove the tumor while incarcerated and upon her release, she had lost her job, car, good credit, and even some of her instruments rendering her homeless. Never giving up hope, she was referred to the Alcott Center for services and admitted to our alternative crisis program. Staff were able to locate, and the agency paid for temporary housing while providing intensive mental health and case management services while linking her to our permanent housing programs. Today, with the help of Alcott staff, she is permanently housed in a subsidized apartment and every day working to improve the quality of her life. A couple of quotes from D: “It was a horrible experience and if you don’t have mental health issues before becoming homeless, you will develop mental health issues once you become homeless”; “It can happen to anyone”…
As a part of our series about people making an important social impact I had the pleasure to interview Nick Maiorino Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of Alcott Center Mental Health Services. Nickhas 30+ years of experience working in various community based, non-profit settings. An east coast transplant, Nick earned his Master’s in Clinical Psychology/Behavioral Medicine from Connecticut College and spent years working with Medicaid clients impacted by serious and persistent mental illness prior to relocating to Los Angeles in 1998. Nick’s work with the homeless population began in 1999 when he joined a Venice based agency, where he served in various managing capacities for 15 years, including Deputy/Associate Director. In 2015, Nick joined Alcott and last year was promoted to Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer after the retirement of the previous, longstanding Director. Nick is a Westside resident and, in addition to his work, is dedicated to the environment, conservation efforts, loves animals and anything outdoors especially hiking and fitness.
Thank you so much for joining us Nick! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve worked in community mental health for 30+ years — time certainly flies. I had always been drawn to helping others, but it was really my personal struggles that landed me in the mental health field. I had a great therapist who truly became a mentor to me. Coupled with family support and time, I returned to school, completed my master’s degree and started out as a clinician working with Medicaid patients in New London, Connecticut. Needing a change, twenty years ago I packed it all up and relocated to Los Angeles. Soon-after, I began working for a Venice based agency, managing their mental health programs serving those at risk of becoming homeless. I learned a lot about what makes a non-profit tick, and eventually worked my way up the ladder. I left there, came to Alcott and when the long-time Executive Director retired, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to move into her role.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’ve been the CEO for the Alcott Center for just one year now. One of my goals was to get our name ‘out there’ — who knew what would transpire from doing so! In just one year, the agency has doubled in funding, staff, square footage and patient census and we continue on this growth path.
What’s also interesting and challenging is taking the helm of an agency that was led by the same person for 37 years. She was essentially the founder and left a great foundation but with our growth, a cultural shift is happening. The agency is growing out of its ‘grass roots’ stage and naturally, there’s some tension between ‘old’ and ‘new’.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Agreeing to a DIY project, gutting and renovating the first floor of one of our buildings. Here I was, brand-new in my position, trying to impress my Board — what was I thinking? Thank goodness for the generosity of several Board and community members — many, many weekends later, place looks great! Lesson(s) learned: pace yourself; you don’t have to do it all; oh, and, ask the landlord for permission next time…
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The Alcott Center provides comprehensive mental health treatment to underserved adults, under contract, at no cost to the beneficiary in addition to homeless / housing services to some of the most vulnerable individuals in Los Angeles County. Since 2016, Alcott has also led the ‘Pico-Robertson Health Neighborhood’, a pilot project which has organized service providers, faith-based organizations and community members with goals to improve access to services and improve the overall health of the community.
At Alcott, we really work to reduce negative stigma often attached to mental illness and homelessness. We have increased our work with the community, providing education to help offset myths. We’ve made it easier and comfortable to access our services. We have joined a movement to help decentralize the jail system and provide intense, humane services to those who need it the most. Coupled with our new housing for health services, we are housing people, providing mental health care, empowering, and giving them another chance to have a better life.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Sure, and I think this is a good example of how some individuals sadly end up in the jail systems. I’ll call her ‘D’. D was a successful musician working in the entertainment industry when the unexpected happened. A couple of years ago, she unintentionally attacked a co-worker and was incarcerated. During incarceration, she experienced multiple traumatic events. She was then diagnosed with a rare brain tumor which was determined to be causing the erratic behaviors. She had surgery to remove the tumor while incarcerated and upon her release, she had lost her job, car, good credit, and even some of her instruments rendering her homeless. Never giving up hope, she was referred to the Alcott Center for services and admitted to our alternative crisis program. Staff were able to locate, and the agency paid for temporary housing while providing intensive mental health and case management services while linking her to our permanent housing programs. Today, with the help of Alcott staff, she is permanently housed in a subsidized apartment and every day working to improve the quality of her life. A couple of quotes from D: “It was a horrible experience and if you don’t have mental health issues before becoming homeless, you will develop mental health issues once you become homeless”; “It can happen to anyone”…
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Community: be kinder and learn to be empathetic. I can’t really say that enough. Many of us are one step away from becoming homeless, or, developing a mental health condition. Put yourself in other’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from. And when we are trying to build or open affordable housing in your community, please try to think about the greater good.
Society: Recognize that mental illnesses and substance misuse are in fact physical illnesses. When someone tells you they have diabetes, the response is sometimes very different from someone saying they have PTSD or are an alcoholic. ‘Health’ is multi-layered and includes physical, mental, behavioral and quality of life issues. Someone who has a mental health condition or abuses substances is not ‘weak’ as sometimes thought — they are struggling, trying to cope and potentially self-medicating.
Politicians: provide funding to boost community services and affordable housing as well as making it easier to site these types of facilities. One problem with overcrowded emergency rooms and the jails is the community system is not robust enough to handle the rising numbers needing services. In addition, there is a back-log of individuals held in the jails, awaiting temporary housing placement. It is far more humane not to mention less expensive tax dollar-wise to serve and house people in the community, vs. not.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I have a very collaborative type of leadership style. To make it all work, it’s important to hire smart, provide some structure and then empower staff to perform their respective roles. I give credit where credit is due, in fact, I probably don’t take enough at times, but I think that is part of my role. Transparency and honesty are key, and I believe they lead to trusting relationships.
I think a good example of my leadership style is Alcott’s lead role on the Pico-Robertson Health Neighborhood. I started this collaboration in 2016, bringing together several of the areas service providers to look at service access and overall health and quality of life issues impacting the community. The coalition has been very successful, more than we ever thought it would, given the limited funding we have for it. People have asked why it’s worked so well, and my response is I believe we provided a trusting, non-competitive atmosphere with a similar vision. While Alcott is the ‘lead’, we share leadership for the project and work together in making decisions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
-You can’t do it all — don’t expect yourself to do it all, and, hire people smarter than you and help them reach their full potential
-Trust your gut — everyday, there are lots of decisions to be made — your gut is your best friend
-Things really come at you from all sides — when you are at the ‘top’, things come at you from all sides. There’s the Board of Directors, the Community, others in leadership roles and then, everyone who is working with you. It can be a lot at times
-Keep a note pad by your bed — when you wake up fretting about whatever it is you are fretting about, write it down and go back to sleep
-Work from home occasionally — when you have things turned on 24/7, it’s ok to work from home for a few hours now and then
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement to bring about payment reform, and universal health care with parity for mental health and substance use would be awesome. How is that people cannot afford prescriptions or obtain the care they need? That services are not accessible for some? That billing and documentation requirements interfere with patient centered care? We are the richest country in the world, yet we do not provide health care to all equally. The disparities and inequalities are truly disturbing to me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The more challenging someone is to work with, the more they need you”. I’ve always worked with challenging people and this quote helps me to remain grounded in the face of these challenges. Also, one of my visions for the Alcott Center is that we provide treatment to individuals who may have burned their bridges elsewhere — I want it to be a safe-haven for all, despite challenges.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama. I think she’s pretty cool, dignified and inspiring. ‘When they go low, we go high’. I’d like to know how she always seems to be able to take the high road. I’d be ok if she brought Barack with her too 😊.
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