Katie McLeese Stephenson with George the therapy dog

Executive Director Katie McLeese Stephenson poses with George the therapy dog at the Child Guidance Center. Behind them is a mural that former youth treatment specialist Kara Taylor painted while on staff at the Child Guidance Center. Taylor now lives out of state.

PHOTO BY AMBER BAESLER, LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR

From the time she was 15 years old, Katie McLeese Stephenson knew she wanted to be a social worker. She began working with children and youth in high school and college and graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska Omaha, earning a master’s degree in social work.

She has worked with children and families in various positions for the last 30-plus years, including employment with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and Cedars Youth Services. She also completed a term (2011-2015) on the Lincoln Public Schools board of education. Most recently, she served as the statewide director of the Nebraska Court Improvement Project, focusing on child welfare and juvenile justice.

Serving the community in which she grew up is important to McLeese Stephenson, as is her passion for children and families.

When she was 8 years old, she moved to Lincoln with her family and attended Morley Elementary and graduated from East High School. McLeese Stephenson and her husband, Rhett, have 18- and 20-year-old sons.

Nearly a year ago, McLeese Stephenson stepped into what she considers her dream job, as executive director of the Child Guidance Center in Lincoln, an organization that has provided mental health services to children and their families since 1949. She believes it fit well with her skill set and areas of expertise. It was something she wanted to be part of.

“The position involved serving children and families in a community-based setting with an organization that has a strong clinical reputation,” McLeese Stephenson says. “And, it has an excellent staff who have devoted their careers to the community and the agency.”

The Child Guidance Center began as a partnership between the Junior League of Lincoln and the Community Chest, a precursor to today’s United Way of Lincoln and Lancaster County.

“The founders identified a need for services to help nervous children,” McLeese Stephenson says. “We have grown over the years to meet the changing mental health needs in the community. All of our programs saw an increase in participation during the last fiscal year. We served more than 2,000 children and families, and we have a waiting list for all of our services.

“We do not deny services based on the ability to pay,” she adds. “That’s really important to us. We’re seeing more and more of a need.”

With a staff of 90 and an annual $5 million operating budget, the Child Guidance Center offers outpatient therapy, outpatient services for in-need and at-risk youth in 13 public schools, extended-day treatment programs, therapeutic consultation at two LPS behavioral skills programs, therapeutic services at the Youth Assessment Center and a therapeutic group home for adolescent males who have experienced trauma.

The group home, for boys ages 12 to 18, celebrates its 25th year in the community.

“In the group home setting, these boys learn to cope and to behave differently,” McLeese Stephenson says. “Our goal is to help young men work through issues, be healthy themselves and have healthy relationships with others to break the cycle of abuse. In the group home, they have structure, supervision and therapy provided by caring professionals. The youth also give back to the community.”

McLeese Stephenson says the Child Guidance Center is proud of its long-standing reputation as an agency at the forefront of best practices. It offers help for youth and their families who struggle with depression and anxiety, suicidal ideations or attempts, sexual identification and orientation issues, neglect, poverty, physical and sexual abuse and those at risk of or experiencing substance use disorders.

“We really see the gamut of issues, and we help by providing trauma-informed care,” she says. “Many, if not all, of our clients have experienced some type of trauma such as divorce, abuse, gun violence, domestic violence. That trauma changes the brain chemistry, and it changes the way people respond to the world.”

While treating the youth and getting to the root of the issue is the primary focus, McLeese Stephenson says the family plays a pivotal role in the treatment and healing process, and staff members implement strategies that can be employed at home.

“I firmly believe all parents want to do a good job,” she says. “Part of our job is to help parents understand there is a different way to interact with and support their child.”

As she reflects on the agency’s work during the past year, McLeese Stephenson acknowledges the challenges and the rewards.

The challenges include the needs exceeding the available resources, the implementation of Heritage Health with three new Medicaid Managed Care organizations and trying to increase community awareness.

“It’s important for people to know that mental health issues are common and assistance is available,” she says. “There’s often fear and stigma related to mental health. It’s important for families to talk about it and get help. It’s lonely for parents. It’s hard to know how to help the children they love so much.”

The joys reveal themselves when children get the help they need. “I love seeing children as they find hope and healing, seeing a bounce in their step. They feel they can trust and that someone believes in them.”

As McLeese Stephenson’s first year comes to a close, she credits a talented and dedicated staff, collaborations with community partnerships and a strong and involved board of directors.

Jennifer Carter, serving her fourth year on the board, is president of the Child Guidance Center board of directors. An attorney by training and a consultant, she feels strongly about the role the center plays in the community.

“The Child Guidance Center provides an essential service for families,” Carter says. “What they do is so critically important. It’s the place people take their children when they don’t know where to turn. But all of us in the city of Lincoln benefit from their work with children’s mental health issues. Serving 2,000 children and families in a year contributes to the overall health of our community.”

Carter appreciates the fact the center doesn’t turn people away because of their inability to pay.

“With recent changes to Medicaid, the Child Guidance Center’s work becomes even more and more critical,” she says. “People are struggling to get the help they need. And the center is there.”

Carter describes executive director McLeese Stephenson as proactive and a problem-solver who cares deeply for children and families.

“I’m excited for the future under her leadership,” Carter says.

McLeese Stephenson, too, looks forward to her second year as executive director of the Child Guidance Center.

“I want to be mindful of the strong, rich tradition of this organization,” she says. “But I look toward the future and to new ideas and opportunities.

“We’ve been a part of Lincoln 68 years, and a lot of people don’t know about us,” McLeese Stephenson adds. “I’m looking forward to sharing with the community the resources we offer and how we can help strengthen children and families in the community.”

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