In the playroom, children between the ages of 3 and 10 are encouraged to use art and toys as a means of expression.
DUNEDIN – In June 2005, Dolores Mortimer’s son and nephew died in a car accident near the corner of Alt. U.S. 19 and Curlew Road. Eighteen months later, Mortimer was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
“I experienced emotional anguish and grief, and then 18 months later, physical pain,” Mortimer said. “The pain of emotional trauma is so much worse than physical pain.”
But she didn’t let chemotherapy and radiation and surgery stop her. In March 2007, her paperwork for a 501(c)(3) came through and the House of Mercy and Encouragement was born.
Nearly seven years later, the Dunedin-based mental therapy wellness center still has the same mission as when it opened: help people with mental help issues in any way possible.
“I never stopped striving to build this place,” said Mortimer, the director of House of Mercy and Encouragement. “It gave me a mission, something to live for.”
The House of Mercy and Encouragement focuses on children with Attention Deficit Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, Adjustment Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Clinical Depression, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Bipolar Mood Disorder, as well as children grieving the loss of a loved one through death or divorce and some couples counseling.
Staff at the therapy center includes Mortimer, two behavior specialists, a counselor, an education specialist, an art teacher and a counselor intern.
Inside the building, located at 557 Park St., Dunedin, Mortimer and her staff have developed different rooms to suit the needs of different patients. The therapeutic playroom, designed for children aged 3 to 10, encourages the use of toys and art as expression. In the sand tray room, patients use miniature items to play out scenes in a box of sand, allowing the therapist to analyze themes. And the beach room, often used for couples and family therapy, gentle music, lighting and scents encourage peaceful discussion.
“A child may not play out exactly what’s happening at home, but they might come close,” Mortimer said. “Children can’t always verbalize.”
A licensed mental health counselor, registered play therapist/supervisor and nationally certified counselor, Mortimer has been working with children with mental heath issues for more than 30 years. And over the years, she’s seen family issues change.
“I see wonderful families, but issues are more severe now,” Mortimer said. “I think media and computers have a lot to do with that. You can’t monitor your child 24 hours a day, no matter how much you love them.”
Counselor Intern Sam Lima echoed Mortimer’s concern about the effect of technology on children and adolescents.
“The iPad is the babysitter now,” he said. “Adult themes are being introduced early on because children aren’t being monitored.”
Lima, who served in the Marine Corps for 25 years, now uses technology as part of therapy, including LEGO Mindstorms, a kit of software and hardware that allows users to create customizable, programmable robots. The program encourages group interaction, cooperation and teamwork, all of which are valuable traits for adolescents, Lima said.
But Mortimer has bigger plans for the House of Mercy and Encouragement than she can achieve in the building she occupies now. Even with recent contributions from the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, the First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin and Novel Blend, the staff simply doesn’t have enough money to rent a larger building that they feel they need to better serve their patients.
Last year alone, the House of Mercy and Encouragement served 215 families, totaling 1,779 sessions overall. With a larger facility, Lima said, they could help even more people and provide even more love.
On Feb. 6, the Kalamazoo Olive Company will host a wine and cheese tasting party, with all ticket proceeds going to the House of Mercy and Encouragement. Fifteen percent of proceeds from the silent auction also will go back to the therapy center. Tickets for the event are $25 per person or $40 for two tickets.
“We’re not making a profit,” Mortimer said. “Everything that comes in goes directly to the kids.”