Putting it all together

Once a month, we will be highlighting a nominated Powered by Orange business. What does it mean to be a Powered by Orange business? It could be that it’s owned by an Oregon State alum, has many OSU alums working there, or is just friends of OSU.  A Powered by Orange Business also drives innovation, supports economic growth and serves the community.

This month, Orange Spotlight chose Corvallis’ Old Mill Center for Children and Families, which has been providing integrated educational, counseling and home visiting services to children and their families for more than 30 years.

For Bev Larson, PhD, the journey to co-founding the innovative Old Mill Center for Children and Families started in a trailer in Concord, California. It was 1971, and Larson had recently graduated from Oregon State with a degree in English education. Her first job was teaching high school students with disabilities.

What Larson noticed immediately was the marginalization her students experienced. It couldn’t have been more obvious. Their classroom – the trailer – wasn’t even attached to the school building.

“I was appalled at how alienated those kids and their families were from the school system. I thought, ‘these kids are so much more together than the school thinks they are,’” says Larson.

Witnessing the wide gulf between her students’ abilities and how they were treated changed Larson’s plan to become an English teacher. Instead, she became dedicated to creating an integrated model of education that put children with “typical” and “atypical” needs in the same classroom. This mainstreaming made Larson and fellow Old Mill co-founder Barb Kralj (also an OSU grad) pioneers in their field. By the time laws were created that required mainstreaming students with disabilities, Larson and Kralj were ready to roll out an integrated curriculum for pre-school kids that was replicated throughout the country. And they were starting to draw more family services together, like counseling, to exist under one roof.

Now, more than 30 years after leaving that California trailer, Larson is the Executive Director of Corvallis’ Old Mill Center, which provides educational, counseling and home visiting services for children from birth to 18, as well as their families.  Kralj has since moved on, but the theme of integration – not only in the classroom but in regards to serving children’s families – has always been the driving force behind Old Mill, which began in 1977 as a pre-school serving eight families and grew into a multifaceted center serving more than 1,600.

It is a singular center, at least in the state of Oregon, for the breadth of services it provides.  At Old Mill, families and children have access to early childhood development help, preschool, intensive day treatment, speech-language therapy and child and family counseling. Their services and clientele are diverse. The staff to student ratio is small. Old Mill is the only facility in the county that manages medication and provides mental health services for children on the Oregon Health Plan. They serve families who are poor. They serve families who have wealth and private insurance. They serve at-risk families and children and those who are not.

“We have really moved away from working with just a child,” says Larson. “It’s clear for me that kids are part of family systems. They obviously don’t exist out of that system. Including families to work with children and youth is huge to make sure that we really make a long-term impact on them.”

It would be difficult for Larson to make that impact without Old Mill’s close relationship with Oregon State University. Several of Old Mill’s board members are Oregon State faculty and staff. More than half of the staff of 33 graduated from Oregon State, many of them from the College of Education’s program in counselor education and from the College of Health and Human Sciences’ program in human development and family sciences. Old Mill serves as placement for six to eight interns a term from Oregon State, many of them from HDFS.

Many of Old Mill’s 40 volunteers are associated with Oregon State. Larson went on to get a doctorate in education with minors in psychology and speech. Old Mill’s donors are heavily woven into the Oregon State community – among them is President Ed Ray, who purchases a corporate table at their annual auction, which the Old Mill holds in the CH2M Hill Alumni Center on campus.

“I never find any arrogance in the people we have from OSU, either as interns or as staff,” says Larson. “They’re very passionate about what they’re doing. They’re very team-oriented, and transparent and open to others’ ideas and to sharing their ideas. I’m just amazed at the quality of staff we have at Old Mill.”

For Donna Brown, a pre-school teacher and a 2006 OSU graduate, the rewards come when volunteers can point out to her the changes in the children she spends her days with.

“There are these ‘a-ha!’ moments. I don’t really see the changes until a weekly volunteer points them out,” says Brown. “And then I see. I’m actually making a difference. Kids go from unsure to outgoing. They’ve got it.”

In the future, Larson wants to create an endowment for Old Mill, to ensure the center’s survival for the next several decades. And she’s excited about the new programs they have created to work with the birth to 3 population in Benton County, which allow Old Mill staff to have an earlier and greater impact on families and kids struggling with stressors like poverty, addiction and mental health issues.

Really, Larson says, Old Mill can provide support to any child.

“I encourage people to contact us if they’re having a concern about their child or teenager, or if they feel like their neighbor or grandchild could use support,” says Larson. “It’s almost certain Old Mill has a program that could help them, or can help them find the right resource elsewhere. I can’t imagine anybody coming through the front door and hearing, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you.’”

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