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Ahern: Brenda Thompson, a woman of unusual commitment

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Brenda Thompson

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Updated: July 17, 2013 6:13AM



Brenda Thompson lives according to the hope she has and the hope she tries to instill in others, but financially speaking, it’s not easy.

As a licensed clinical social worker, Thompson runs a non-profit social service agency, the Branch Family Institute, that provides mental health care, encouragement and support for the poor.

With six of the city of Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics closing last year, the need for low-cost therapy has never been higher, but the economy that caused those city clinics to close is the same that Thompson confronts every day.

She struggles to keep her agency running, despite a lack of funds and her clients’ inability to pay. The lack of funds has resulted in some cutbacks, notably in situations where Thompson was able to provide supervised visitations to clients, and this troubles her.

“It is devastating to all of us,” she said. “It is especially hard for me because we are struggling. I have a passion to help people, and with the health care centers closing the demand is great.”

Thompson, 61, has been in the health care business for more than 30 years. She points to her difficult childhood as part of her incentive to help people.

Growing up on the South Side, Thompson was raised by a mom who left her first husband due to his infidelity and her second husband because he was abusive. Thompson’s mother struggled to raise six children and eventually had to accept public aid — a lifestyle that Thompson remembers well because her mother was always ashamed of having to ask for help.

“I always wanted a better life. I married young, and I was determined I was going to have a better life than my mother had,” she said. “I also think somewhere in my psyche, I want people to be treated the way I wanted to be treated.”

That desire to treat people well is evident not only in the operation of the Branch Family Institute but in the way she lives her life. When one of her clients, Cynthia Allen, ended up homeless, Thompson let her sleep at the office during the day because Allen was too frightened to sleep outside at night.

Allen, who now has a residence in Chicago’s Beverly community, is very appreciative of Thompson’s generosity and works today as a volunteer for the institute.

“I had severe bipolar mental health issues,” Allen said. “BFI gave me what I needed for a normal life. They helped me with my depression, and last year, when I became homeless, they allowed me to have a home away from home.”

Making people feel worthy is important to Thompson and is part of why she drives herself to keep her agency going. She keeps the institute as a not-for-profit because it enables her to accept financial donations from foundations and take clients on a sliding-fee basis, helping those who don’t have a place to get help.

“We’ve had wonderful supporters in the past,” she said. “People are committed, but people don’t have disposable incomes any more. Corporations have cut back. My dream is to serve the underserved and to provide for the complex issues of our day.”

To keep finances available, Thompson dips into her money and credits her husband’s understanding when she does. She also holds various fundraisers, and this year’s main fundraiser will take place in November at U.S. Cellular Field.

“We’ve taken from our savings when we couldn’t pay the bills,” Thompson said. “My husband is so good — I wouldn’t be married to me.”

More seriously, despite the financial concerns, Thompson wants to see Branch Family Institute continue its work and has the dream that her daughter Nikia, a licensed clinical social worker, and son Steven, BFI’s billing manager, will take over for her one day. For this dream to come true, though, Thompson must keep raising funds for the institute.

Thompson does not overestimate the need for mental health services in Illinois. According to the University of Chicago website, Illinois received a grade of “D” in a 2009 report card by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“At this point in my life, I didn’t think I would be struggling, but I am grateful we are still open,” she said. “This is not a job to me. This is who I am, and this is what I do. I want to help people, and I will continue to do this work until the day I die.

“It is really a privilege, what I do is really a privilege, because the people I see trust me with their private pain. We are appreciative of the Beverly/Mount Greenwood communities that have embraced us. We just want to provide quality social services to people with dignity and respect.”

To learn more about Branch Family Institute, 11111 S. Western Ave., visit www.thebranchfamilyinstitute.org. To donate funds, contact Thompson at (773) 238-1100.



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