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'It's a special place': Integrity Counseling celebrates 10 years in Bloomington

When Don and Luella Mahannah started Integrity Counseling in 2014, their mission was simple: to provide “stigma-free mental health” to all, catering largely to the underinsured and uninsured on a pay-what-you-can model.

Luella had been volunteer counseling with Home Sweet Home Ministries shelter in Bloomington, where she encountered individuals who spoke to her of difficulty accessing mental health care.

Then, news started coming out about the population of inmates with serious mental health issues increasing in the McLean County jail. The way then-sheriff Mike Emery explains it, staff was “overwhelmed.” He added that Don and Luella have always been “caring” and “giving” (they’re former neighbors to Emery) so he wasn’t surprised when they “stepped up.”

The couple describes Integrity as their calling. They both exited retirement to open the nonprofit.

“Integrity has been both a passion and then an expression of our own faith,” Don explained. “We wanted to bring this to the community and try to make a difference in people's lives.” (The couple is Christian, but they don't push religion onto clients. It's simply a guiding philosophy that subtly shows up in their work, such as their logo, a fish).

A decade later, Don and Luella — and the hundreds of volunteer counselors, front desk workers and fundraisers that stepped in to help over the past 10 years — are celebrating the more than 20,000 therapy sessions Integrity has held, reaching more than 2,000 McLean County residents who may not have gotten treatment otherwise.

Getting to 10 years

It took time and patience to reach this point, though. The Mahannahs filed the paperwork for their nonprofit and quickly figured out how to operate the organization. Luella seamlessly moved in as a counselor, and Don took over general business operations, despite his background being in electrical engineering.

Back in 2014 when Integrity started, Don said “it was Luella and a business card on day one.” She had to go out and find counselors like her who were willing to share their time and services.

But Don said the business cards worked.

“It wasn't very long after that, that she had one, and then two people working with her,” he explained. “And then from there, it's just kind of grown.”

Last year, Integrity had over 100 volunteers, with around 30 doing counseling and clinical supervision.

Luella said their reach is wider too. Referrals come in frequently from area doctors, and Integrity counselors are embedded in the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal and some District 87 schools.

“I think the impact is bigger than we can really see,” she said.

Integrity moved to a larger space in Bloomington and acquired an external conference space next door to their offices, where they hold group therapy sessions.

Don and Luella Mahannah spoke to WGLT about the 10th anniversary of the pay-what-you-can mental health nonprofit they opened, Integrity Counseling.
Emily Bollinger
The Mahannahs say they opened Integrity to decrease barriers to mental health care.

Built on volunteers

To this day, the nonprofit sustains itself on volunteers and donations. Don said 20% of operating costs are paid for by clients, who on average pay around $10 per hour of counseling. Grants and donations pay for the other 80% of operating costs.

Laura Books, a former volunteer and intern with Integrity who’s since become a full-time counselor at a practice in Normal, said she doesn’t think the community realizes the impact volunteerism has at Integrity.

“It’s run on volunteers, completely,” she said.

A volunteer board, counselors, front desk staff keep Integrity running. Even the Mahannahs, after 10 years, are still volunteers. Luella, as a counselor, and Don, as the board treasurer, and whatever else is needed for that day. He can be found anywhere from the front desk taking calls and greeting guests to the bathroom cleaning toilets.

“Just a whole bunch of people giving a little bit of time or a lot of time depending on what they're able to do," Books described it.

Dual impact

The Mahannahs said many of the volunteers that have come through Integrity have gone on — like Books — to pursue counseling as a career. Don said that "has been a sizable part of what we've done."

He pointed to the dozens of undergrad and graduate interns that Integrity had over the years.

Integrity took on paid staff in 2020, but there is still only a handful

Part-time counselor Verneice Prince is one of them. She said Integrity, and more specifically, Don and Luella, have taught her how to be encouraging and inclusive. She uses these skills in her nonprofit called Cruisin Outta Poverty Services.

“I see (the Mahannahs) supporting everyone on every level regardless of what their background is, and I think this is a model, especially here in our town for other businesses and organizations to be able to do that," she said.

Prince said Don and Luella imbue a sense of welcoming and comfort into the physical building itself.

White noise machines emit soothing sounds throughout the former doctor's office to create a sense of calm and keep conversations private; client art adorns the walls, as do bible verses — left over from the previous occupant — and encouraging words; and the lobby has coffee, tea and water.

"I can walk in and just feel free to be myself because I don't see any areas, you know, that need to be changed," Prince explained.

Client Impact

All of this effort doesn't go unnoticed.

Rosalynn — who declined to share a last name for privacy concerns — has been an Integrity client for five years. Like Prince, she said Integrity helped her feel empowered, but it took some cajoling to get her through the door. A friend had to dial the Integrity number and toss the phone to her.

“The director (Luella) was on the other line,” she explained. “And less than a week later, I was in here and receiving services and was trying to downplay everything that I was going through… and then the real stuff came out that life was a hot mess.”

After continuous therapy with Luella Mahannah, Rosalynn said that’s no longer the case.

“Integrity doesn't see my mental health issues,” she explained. “They see me as me and for the first time in a long time. It’s allowed me to begin seeing me as me and not as a person with a disability or a person with mental health issues.”

Luella also continued to see Rosalynn when she went through recent financial hardship, telling her it was fine if she had to pay less — or nothing.

Former intern Books said this is part of what makes the nonprofit unique.

“It's hard enough for people when they have a mental health need to reach out and ask for help in the first place, and then when you quickly find it's too expensive or the access is hard or there's waitlists everywhere,” she explained. “Then, my worry is people delay that care."

Instead of letting people fall through the cracks, Books said Integrity steps in with a "Here we are. We've got you."

“That is meaningful,” she added. “That’s special. It’s a special place.”

The future of Integrity

Both the Mahannahs said they want Integrity to continue for many years, but getting here hasn't been without its hurdles, and there will be more to come.

One of their current focuses is ensuring the nonprofit’s success once they finally decide to retire from their volunteerism for good — though they both said that probably won’t be for a while.

"We think it's part of being responsible leaders to try to have Integrity grow into a sustainable long-term public charity," Don explained.

Don added it's been "a little more difficult" finding volunteers given the ongoing health care worker shortage. Meanwhile, he said more people are seeking Integrity services since the pandemic.

The Mahannahs aren't backing down from the challenge, though. Don said the nonprofit is all about adapting to fill a need.

“I think that the niche that we fill is meaningful, and if it were not any larger tomorrow than it is today, that niche is still valuable,” Don said.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.