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You don’t last 50 years in business without making a few shrewd moves and catching some lucky breaks.

The regional mental health clinic now known as the Pauquette Center is celebrating its 50th year of service. About 170 people — including dozens of employees past and present — gathered at Wintergreen Resort in Wisconsin Dells for a party Nov. 14.

“It was a pretty good turnout,” said Sheila Starr, who helped organize the event and prepared an in-depth summary of the company’s history. “I think it went great.”

Jocelyn Miller, a psychologist and Pauquette’s vice president, said the business’ growth over the years can be attributed to several factors, including the rising acceptance of mental health care. Although seeing a therapist still comes with a stigma for some, it’s increasingly common in the mainstream.

“People are a little more alert and aware,” Miller said.

Pauquette now operates six offices in three counties and employs 50 people. But it started in 1965 as a single clinic in Portage called the Columbia County Guidance Health Center. It provided a sliding scale for mental health services to residents of Columbia, Marquette and Adams counties.

A decade later, executive director Dr. Larry Larrabee formed Community Service Associates, a private entity. It was created to operate the Guidance Health Center under contract with the counties.

Over the next 10 years, the business established clinics across Wisconsin under various names, including Pauquette Center. Some later were sold. But over time Pauquette came to be comprised of clinics in Portage, Baraboo, Columbus, Richland Center, Sauk Prairie and Reedsburg. Combined, the clinics employ 25 therapists who offer 2,400 hours of clinical services monthly.

Miller said Pauquette grew on the strength of several factors, not the least of which was establishing partnerships with insurance companies in the 1980s and 1990s. Not all mental health care providers were so quick to recognize the importance of HMOs.

“They had the foresight to understand how the payment process was changing for mental health care,” Miller said.

Addiction counseling

Pauquette also pioneered combining mental health care with addiction counseling. Many of its therapists are licensed as therapists and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse counselors.

“That’s always been part of the model,” Miller said. “I think we’ve always been uniquely situated to provide integrated care. If you have both depression and alcoholism, we can help you with both at the same time, often with the same therapist.”

The clinics also were quick to offer to children and adolescents, even in the 1960s, when that practice wasn’t widespread.

In more recent years, south-central Wisconsin’s battle with opiates has kept the clinics’ AODA counselors busy. Pauquette has a developed program devoted specifically to opiates.

Meanwhile, the rising divorce rate has boosted demand for individual and couples’ counseling. Pauquette promotes conflict resolution methods such as mediation, where the parties jointly agree to terms. Because money so often lies at the heart of ex-spouses’ squabbles, Miller recommends creating a joint bank account — funded by both parties — to pay for children’s expenses.

“The emotional consequences are much better, for the parents and the children,” she said.

One of Pauquette’s strengths — recruiting therapists committed to rural mental health care — is also one of its challenges. There’s a shortage nationwide, and rural clinics often struggle to hire counselors.

“We’re out here filling the gaps, and helping people in their hometowns,” Miller said. “Small communities have so much to offer.”

Expansion plans

In addition to adding enough therapists to meet demand, Pauquette hopes to add services for clients who speak Spanish or use sign language. Miller said the clinics also hope to expand group therapy options: Groups are available for addicts and domestic abusers, but other types of clients could benefit from group settings.

Miller said the clinic also hopes to expand its assessment capabilities, so its staff can evaluate Social Security applications and determine whether defendants are mentally competent to stand trial.

Constantly evolving to meet community needs is what powered Pauquette for its first half century and will propel the company into its second.

“The opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives is the most amazing thing,” said Miller, a therapist since 1983. “I think everybody should have a therapist available to them in their lives.”