FitzGerald calls Intermountain’s 44-year career a ‘wonderful mystery’

Jim FitzGerald was working on a sheep ranch in western Montana when he saw a Helena journal that a trucker had left at a truck stop.

Tucked inside the help-seeking ads was a job posting at the Intermountain Deaconess House in Helena.

FitzGerald, who was from the Los Angeles area, had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He had come to Montana to work in construction and build a few buildings on the sheep ranch his contractor boss in California had purchased. He had fallen in love with the Treasure State and knew he didn’t want to go back to California.

And 44 years later, he retired from the agency that has helped thousands of Montana children and their families and also grown in reach and mission.

Intermountain, which describes itself as a “pioneering mental and behavioral health agency,” said it helps children and families through residential, school and outpatient therapy services. He states that it is a nationally recognized non-profit organization that helps children and families in Montana as well as nationally and internationally through its patient-based treatment model. relationships.

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Intermountain was founded in 1909. William Wesley Van Orsdel, also known as “Brother Van”, and Louise Stork convinced the Wesleyan University board of trustees to convert an abandoned campus in the valley of Helena at Montana Deaconess School. It opened on September 14, 1909, with nine students.

FitzGerald said he has no plans to stay on the job that long.

“But that didn’t surprise me,” he said. “It seemed like a good fit, good mission and good people.”

FitzGerald was recently honored at Intermountain’s Festival of Trees Starlight Gala.

Pam Schapper, incoming board chair, said FitzGerald had been chief executive for 21 of his 44 years at Intermountain. She noted that FitzGerald did not attend the banquet, citing an unexpected visit from a family member.

“His legacy to the organization is exponential,” she said, noting that under her leadership, FitzGerald hired two consultants to lead the board and staff in a new mission and vision for the organization, while ensuring that intermountain celebrates its heritage.

“This vision has taken us from 50 children and families a day in three programs to nearly 1,200 children, families and individuals a day in the great state of Montana in many programs,” Schapper said. “We have grown from a Helena-based organization to a statewide organization with unique partnerships across the state, enabling expansion and co-location of services.”

Intermountain Tree Festival

The Intermountain Festival of Trees returned to the Helena Civic Center in November.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Disc

She said FitzGerald launched a $25 million capital campaign resulting in new and renovated on-campus cottages, endowment money, statewide legacy donations, and a new campus in the Flathead called Providence Home.

“Jim advocated that we could always fill another bed and care for a child, but we had the added responsibility and moral obligation to prevent and intervene in childhood trauma,” Schapper said.

FitzGerald, 69, said in a telephone interview that needs have always exceeded demand.

He said most of Intermountain’s growth has happened over the past 25 years, but it’s all been planned. FitzGerald said the nonprofit has moved from residential beds to community service, training and advocacy.

We asked him what he liked about the job.

“The best part has been seeing the change in some broken and shattered children’s lives and fixing the works with children and families and putting the children in forever homes,” FitzGerald said.

He congratulated those who helped Intermountain financially.

“Donors are a real asset,” FitzGerald said. “A non-profit organization works outside the economy.”

He said that in the nonprofit world, you wake up and go to work raising 25-30% of your income.

“Our donors have been absolutely fabulous and our staff have been exceptional,” said FitzGerald.

He said nonprofits run behavioral health programs that private providers don’t want to touch. They have to rely on Medicaid rates, which don’t cover costs and weren’t designed for running a business.

“You better be able to fundraise from caring donors,” he said.

Schapper said FitzGerald’s “greatest legacy” at Intermountain came before he was CEO. He helped define a treatment philosophy for Intermountain’s clinical programs.

In 1982, FitzGerald was sent across the country by the then CEO to find a clinical model for treatment, she said. An hour from Denver, he visited an organization called Forest Heights, a 23-bed program that operated out of a former hunting lodge.

“The model resonated with him, and with our staff. The philosophy was about attachment and connections, as he often says, that’s what our great-grandparents knew,” Schapper said. “The importance of attachment and bonding and what breaks in relationships is healed by healthy relationships.”

“That’s still our mission today, to heal through healthy relationships,” she said. “He often speaks about how our organization provides cross-generational inoculation against abuse, neglect and trauma in everything we do.”

FitzGerald said that at the time, Intermountain did not have a good treatment model suitable for young children.


Occupational therapists demonstrate an exercise commonly used with children at the Intermountain Community Clinic, Montana’s first mental health center dedicated to treating children, adolescents and their families.

Thomas Bridge

He said Forest Heights mentored Intermountain for five years.

“It was ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the impact of trauma on a child,” FitzGerald said.

He said major funding cuts to programs and nonprofits began in the 1980s under the Reagan administration.

“It’s always been difficult, it’s always been underfunded,” FitzGerald said.

He said the state legislature has approved education rates for health care providers.

“They did a fabulous job and made an accurate assessment, but the governor’s budget comes up with a third of the recommended budget,” FitzGerald said. “We would never treat highways and bridges that way, we would take care of basic needs.”

He said children’s mental health had never been adequately funded.

“Kids don’t vote,” FitzGerald said. “Many lawmakers view mental health issues as a moral failure of families and children.”

He said Montana has been among the top five states in the nation for child suicide for 30 years.

“It’s not by accident,” FitzGerald said. “We know better but we don’t do better.”

He had decided to retire before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he delayed his departure, not wanting to add to the disruption caused by COVID-19.

“But it was time for me to step aside and let someone else in,” he said, adding that he had grown tired of the constant financial game to find funding and was throwing a leash. – pass “I salute you Marie” every Monday morning.

He and his wife Joan live in Helena and have four adult children. He said he is now employed part-time by the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch Foundation.

Dee Incoronato is now Intermountain’s chief strategy officer and interim chief executive. She started on the Intermountain board in 2002 and became a staff member in 2013.

She said FitzGerald’s legacy at Intermountain was twofold:

Incoronato mentioned finding the Forest Heights model, which is the one Intermountain uses today, as one.

The other happened in 2005 when he was CEO. FitzGerald made a presentation to the board.

“He said, ‘We can always treat another child, fill another bed, but we have the added responsibility and moral obligation to prevent and intervene in childhood trauma,'” she recalls .

His vision has taken Intermountain from serving 50 children and families a day in Helena to nearly 1,200 a day in the state of Montana in various outpatient trauma services and community trauma prevention trainings.

FitzGerald was asked for his thoughts on Intermountain’s future.

“There’s no end in sight for the needs…the line for kids waiting to be served circles the block 10 times,” he said.

“I think Intermountain will be fine, they have a fabulous mission, a fabulous foundation and a committed staff who have been through hell and back during the pandemic,” FitzGerald said, adding that most suppliers have not recovered from the pandemic.

FitzGerald called his career and his time at Intermountain a “wonderful mystery at every turn”.

“I was grateful for every opportunity that came my way,” he said. “I was grateful for the incredible opportunity given to me.”

Schapp thanked FitzGerald for his years of service to Intermountain and all he has done for the children.

“As our founder, Brother Van, said, ‘Brothers, we cannot allow the suffering of children to go (unanswered).’ And that’s what Jim has done for all his years with Intermountain, is to refuse to see the suffering of children go unanswered.

Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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