When the First Presbyterian Church in Elgin offered its basement rent-free to family counselors interested in starting a practice, they did so with a couple conditions. First, there could be no waiting list for services and second, the therapists would have to serve anyone regardless of ability to pay.
Jim Otepka, of Batavia, has worked part-time for Kairos Family Counseling Center for almost 31 years -- he said the original offer from the church in 1975 is part folklore but fundamentally true.
"The founding fathers were idealistic enough to say sure," Otepka said. "Those have been basic tenets to the organization, and it really has worked incredibly well through the years."
Unlike practically every other community counseling center that exists, Kairos clients do not wait weeks or months for service. A committed group of mental health professionals has decided to honor the idea that starting a waiting list is not an option.
Kairos serves people who do not qualify for Medicaid and charges based on a sliding scale that fits with an individual's ability to pay, whether that is with insurance or not.
Otepka, who also works full-time as the executive director of TriCity Family Services in Geneva, decided recently to try focusing on just one job, effectively retiring from Kairos.
At 63, Otepka would never admit age is a factor, but he figures his entire career has been a combination of juggling both responsibilities and he might as well see how it goes with just one. Instead of working more than 60 hours each week and putting in occasional Saturday time, Otepka will try focusing exclusively on TriCity Family Services where resources are becoming more scarce even while the community need is increasing.
Of course his grandchildren -- ages 5, 2 and 1 -- also factored into the decision.
"You can imagine over 30 years I missed a whole lot of stuff with my kids and I resolved when the grandkids came along I wasn't going to miss the second opportunity," Otepka said.
Otepka majored in English and minored in psychology for his undergraduate degree, graduating without a clue as to his life's direction. His soon-to-be mother-in-law pointed him in the direction of what is now the Mercy Center for Health Care Services in Aurora -- a position in the psychiatric inpatient division made him a far more promising son-in-law and piqued his interest in what became a lifelong career.
Otepka's interest in behavioral health spurred a return to graduate school at Northern Illinois University and a study of community mental health, which was getting a boost at the time with federal money to build mental health centers and move people from state-run institutions into the community.
"This I found to be fascinating," Otepka said. "To work at a time when there was truly a national movement to change the face of mental health treatment in the country."
Right out of college Otepka worked at what is now the Gateway Foundation in Aurora creating a community-based day program for mentally ill adults returning from hospitalization. He was on the front lines in developing a new way of working with the mentally ill community.
The blend of administrative duties and clinical work Otepka first experienced in Aurora is something he has not given up since. In fact, the only reason he can see himself leaving Kairos is because he will still be able to maintain a client caseload at TriCity while he works as its director.
Otepka's interests shifted to family therapy in the late 1970s. A two-year postgraduate training program in marriage and family therapy ended in a new license, an introduction to Kairos and eventually to TriCity as well.
"You couldn't have asked for a better evolution of a career," Otepka said. "I felt like I had really the best of all worlds."
All the staff members at Kairos have masters degrees and specialized training in couple and family therapy. Every week a peer consultation process helps the individual therapists analyze how their own lives, relationships and beliefs influence their work and connection to certain clients.
"It was kind of beyond the problem-solution approach to consultation," Otepka said.
Rent-free space from the church has undeniably facilitated Kairos' continued commitment to its founding principles. It has also allowed the nonprofit to be free of traditional bureaucracy. Mostly part-time therapists and an office manager work without an administrative hierarchy and a low-budget organization means the ability to avoid compromising their ideals for funding.
Sure, sometimes that meant not getting paid, but Otepka said the structure allowed him and the other therapists the space to truly focus on what was best for their clients, improve their own skills and do their work without the constraints of regulatory agencies or funding groups.
"We're still little, we're still in a church basement, we don't look like a big fancy-schmancy community organization," Otepka said. "But it's been a wonderful place for someone who really wants to practice their craft and focus on the art of therapy."