Director Dolores Mortimer, right, and her niece, office manager Lindsay Chatleain offer play therapy among other counseling services at House of Mercy and Encouragement in Dunedin.
DUNEDIN – The motivation for the House of Mercy and Encouragement, or HOME, was born out of tragedy, but continues as an environment of nurturing and healing both for its clients as well as its director.
Dolores Mortimer, a licensed mental health counselor, has been working in therapy for more than 20 years. But seven years ago, on June 24, 2005, her son, Timothy Mortimer, and nephew, Michael Celidonio, were killed in a car crash. The tragedy pushed Mortimer – who had worked as a school guidance counselor, for a community mental health and a private practice – to start her own foundation.
Mortimer provides a variety of therapy services for all ages. In a room full of toys and bright walls, she provides play therapy for toddlers and children. She offers sand-tray therapy in a room painted like a beach and art expression classes for middle-schoolers. A dimly lit room, whose centerpiece is a box of tissues on a wicker table, provides a calming “time-out” environment for children as well as a haven for adults in couple counseling.
Mortimer said her objective is to provide a welcoming atmosphere where children can feel comfortable.
“We want to be different from other places in that we’re very nurturing and welcoming so they do want to come back,” she said. “And they do.”
HOME moved to its new downtown location, at 557 Park St., on May 1.
“We’re really excited to be in Dunedin,” Mortimer said. “Everybody’s been very kind to us.”
The new space is bigger than the one-story house in Clearwater where the foundation used to be based. But Mortimer said she worked hard to banish the commercial feel of the building HOME shares with a dentist’s office. The nonprofit even has a kitchen where Mortimer can serve healthy snacks to the kids, another way she nurtures children.
“The kids look forward to coming. It’s not like coming to a regular counselor,” she said.
One child once told her that he thought “counseling” meant lying on a couch and talking.
“I didn’t know I was going to be allowed to play games,” Mortimer remembered him saying.
Mortimer uses toys, art and games to help the children express themselves. The play therapy room includes dollhouses set up like a house, a hospital and a school. Along one wall of the sand-tray room are shelves filled with miniature figurines of different people, characters and animals. The toys can help the children tackle a family situation, a traumatic experience, social challenges such as bullying and difficulty making friends or behavioral issues like following directions or anger and impulse control.
“Often, they don’t know what it is that’s bothering them,” Mortimer said, explaining that the abstract concept of feelings can be difficult for children to express. “So we’re very concrete here.”
Along with individual attention, HOME offers group therapy. In one such class, children diagnosed with Asperger disorder created a group mural of the seasons, and were told to switch places in order to add to each other’s artwork. For children who specifically struggle with transitions and changes, the exercise helped them process how the mural could encompass different ideas that weren’t just their own, Mortimer explained.
“It was a tremendous breakthrough,” she said.
Besides Mortimer, HOME staff includes two behavioral specialists, an educational specialist and another mental health counselor. Local artist P.A. Kushner teaches the “Art Sensation” class for middle schoolers, which explores topics such as building self-esteem and their perception of family through painting, drawing and clay.
Services at HOME are charged on a sliding scale based on income. The foundation raises money through an annual fundraiser to pay for scholarships based on need.
“So we’re really community-based and want to do what we can to help out people in the community,” Mortimer said.
Mortimer herself doesn’t take a salary so that more of the costs can go toward rent and electricity. Often she works 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., to offer appointments that work around the schedule of the families she serves.
“It’s just a passion for me; it’s something I really enjoy doing. So I’m here a lot,” she said. “Each child is unique … that’s why I love it.”
Plus, when she stops and thinks about the tragedy that befell her 22-year-old son and 24-year-old nephew and godson, she just gets sad.
“I think that’s why I stay so busy,” she said, becoming her own therapist as tears fill her eyes. “When you lose a child, it creates a terrible void that’s never going to be filled again.”
Mortimer, mother of two other children, recommends that other parents confront their loss by trying to help other people rather than focusing on themselves. In that way, HOME has been therapeutic for her too.
And HOME has been a family venture. Mortimer’s husband of 35 years, Allen, helps with the financial aspect of the foundation. Her niece Lindsay Chatleain, Celidonio’s sister, works as the office manager.
Mortimer, a parishioner of Our Lady Of Lourdes in Dunedin, says that while she offers Christian counseling, HOME doesn’t “preach religion.”
“We’re faith-based, because we’re faith-filled people,” she said.
In the near future, she hopes that HOME can open its doors to a therapy dog and offer a homework-helping program to children.
HOME’s new offices, at 557 Park St., are across from Mease Dunedin Hospital. Call 786-7951 or visit www.houseofmercy-fl.org.