10/10/05 — Center offers glimpse at mission

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Center offers glimpse at mission

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 10, 2005 1:49 PM

Dr. Frank Farrell, director at O'Berry Center since July 1, said he was taken aback by a TV journalist's reaction during a tour of the facility recently.

He said the man had an image of what mental health hospitals were like decades ago, expressing surprise that O'Berry did not fit the profile.

"It made me think," Farrell said. "Maybe other people don't know that much about O'Berry and what we do here."

O'Berry Center is one of Wayne County's largest employers. And yet for those who don't work there or have any affiliation with its services, the cluster of buildings along Old Smithfield Road might be a mystery.

Its role is changing, Farrell said. As the population ages, the needs are physical as well as mental.

"Seventy percent have medical problems, classified as medically fragile," he said.

O'Berry currently serves less than 300 clients, employing 1,000 people for round-the-clock care. What used to be considered a children's mental health center now has only two clients under 18 years old; the average age is 40.

Its mission could be boiled down to a very basic one, Farrell said.

"How do we help improve the quality of life for folks here?" he said.

While the immediate care needs always come first, the center also does much toward creating a comfortable place for its patients. From work programs to opportunities to go grocery shopping and prepare their own meals, clients are afforded as much "quality of life" as possible, Farrell said.

One of the center's current efforts is toward getting the community more involved. While volunteers are already involved in the ongoing programs, Farrell said activities planned throughout the year for clients and staff will soon expand to include community residents.

Included on that list of free events this year was a display of aquatic animals, with aquatic-themed games and crafts, presented by the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Farrell said the staff is also making plans to invite church choirs to the facility and to expand the center's holiday decorations to share with the community.

O'Berry, which serves Wayne and 16 other counties in the south-central region, boasts a rich history since it opened in 1957 as a hospital for black mentally retarded citizens of the state.

The concept began in 1943 with a joint resolution by the General Assembly, suggesting the appointment of a commission to study the conditions, care and treatment of "Negro feeble minded children in the Goldsboro State Hospital for the Insane (Cherry) and other similar institutions of the state." Sen. Thomas O'Berry, a Goldsboro native, was appointed chairman of the commission.

By 1945, according to center records, the commission identified 1,000 black children in need of appropriate care, treatment and training. Recommendations were made for construction of an institution to serve 600 patients and that it be located near the Cherry site.

Between 1945 to 1967, the mentally retarded were admitted to Goldsboro State Hospital. Overcrowding and the need for training of the mentally retarded resulted in passage of a $22 million bond issue by the General Assembly in 1953. Of that, $4.5 million was appropriated for construction, which began in 1954 and was completed in 1957.

The first name proposed for the hospital was "The Negro Training School for Feeble Minded Children." Located on 53 acres northwest of Cherry, societal changes were believed responsible for its being referred to as the Goldsboro Training School, according to a 25th anniversary commemorative publication at O'Berry, "The Observer."

The General Assembly officially renamed the facility O'Berry School in 1959, in honor of Sen. O'Berry, who died shortly before it opened. The name was changed to O'Berry Center in 1965, two years after the General Assembly established local mental health clinics. Enrollment reported in 1959 was 428 students. The numbers represented 72 counties in North Carolina, averaging 10-12 admissions per week. Most of the residents were between 6 and 25 years old.

The largest population served at O'Berry was in 1964, when there were 1,081 residents.

Over the years, development of community resources has increased and is reflected in the declining number of clients at O'Berry.

Although the number served on the campus has shrunk over the years, the needs are more pressing than ever, Farrell said. Part of the reason is because of the aging population, as well as having to respond to intensive therapeutic and supportive services for those in the communities served.