From Humble Beginnings
In 1973, Jefferson County had few social service agencies or alternatives for the legal system. Counseling was expensive and only available by traveling to St. Louis. Alcohol or other drug counseling was almost unavailable at any price. The county needed professional mental health services, but did not have the finances to create an agency to provide them.
One of the first men to recognize the need was Judge John Anderson. Anderson, W.H.S. (Stu) O'Brien, a public defender, and the District Supervisor of State Probation and Parole, Melvin G. Williams, met on an informal basis numerous times lamenting the lack of assistance to the judicial system. The three men decided to create a not-for-profit corporation that would build a halfway house, the most immediate need seen. Other community needs would be addressed later. Enlisting the aid of attorneys Brent Williams and G. William Weier and Jefferson County Sheriff Walter "Buck" Buerger, the papers were filed. The Articles of Incorporation were approved and the Corporation was created on January 22, 1973. The agency's goal was "to reduce recidivism... and allow the community to participate in his reintegration into the community." The corporation advertised for an Executive Director.
The group picked Stephen F. Huss, chairman of the Social Studies Department of Hillsboro Secondary School for the job of Executive Director. He began in March 1973, serving without pay until the agency became financially viable. Stu O'Brien and John Anderson both contributed $5 to open a checking account--instructions were given to Huss to make it grow. The group began efforts to obtain publicity and funding. This effort focused on the theme "People Need People", explained the purpose of the center, gave a rationale for community care and solicited donations under the Federal 501 C3 status recently obtained. The agency’s legal name, Community Treatment Incorporated was shortened to COMTREA—the first syllables of each word. Thus, COMTREA came into being.
Williams sought assistance from the Region V Missouri Law Enforcement Assistance Council and Huss approached the Division of Alcoholism on the Missouri Department of Mental Health for financial aid.
The honeymoon period ended in September 1973 when COMTREA selected an old meat-packing building in Festus for the site of the proposed halfway house. While Senator Eagleton headlined a box-lunch auction for the agency, and State Representatives and other county political figures supported the effort, community opposition increased due to the visibility of the proposed site in the middle of downtown Festus. The Board stood by the site in spite of personal attacks and continued the effort to secure funds. The last newspaper article in 1974 that dealt with the agency announced: "COMTREA Means Hope in Jefferson County" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).
1976 became the pivotal year for COMTREA. A disastrous fire gutted the building on February 22. Like a phoenix, COMTREA arose stronger. The community understood what it would lose without the center. It rallied around the agency. The year also brought a finalization of its future direction. The residential program had been funded by a combination of Probation and Parole money and Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse money. However, the Probation office wanted all the beds and was willing to pay a substantial amount more than the DADA. Huss approached the Board with the idea that COMTREA should forgo the lucrative Probation contract money on principle. After much discussion, the Board committed to becoming the community mental health center for the county. COMTREA chose to develop along the lines of the mental health system rather than legal system because of the increasing community demands for professional counseling on an out-client basis in the areas of psychiatric, family problems, and child abuse. Schools began referring children to the agency and the community recognized COMTREA as being responsive to the community demands for services.
COMTREA developed a stable (although inadequate) funding source for the agency--the Missouri Department of Mental Health. It was one of the first programs in Missouri to be certified by the DMH. "COMTREA Becomes Integral Part of Twin Cities'" read the headlines in early 1978. In cooperation with the St. Louis State Hospital, COMTREA initiated psychiatric counseling for those who needed medication.
The Missouri Department of Mental Health designated COMTREA as the Community Mental Health Center for Jefferson County (Service Area 22) in 1978. Also during the year, the agency took over the small St. Louis State Hospital Outreach Center in Hillsboro's County Health Clinic. In 1981, one newspaper headline stated "Growth and Change Make COMTREA Indispensable." Unfortunately, President Reagan's massive cuts in alcohol and drug funding forced the closing of the Resident Program and the elimination of the Saint Louis branch office.
In 1983, the DMH asked COMTREA to direct the counseling for dioxin and flood victims in the Times Beach area in addition to its other duties. Two days after being contacted, COMTREA staff began assisting traumatized community members in Times Beach.
In April 1984, COMTREA secured the passage of a marriage and divorce fee for the support of abuse victims in Jefferson County and began a jail counseling program. Mental Health Month, May, brought a Family Day and a celebrity auction that used items donated by Willie Nelson, President Ford, Alan Alda, Billy Graham, Pat Boone, Ray Charles and others. The Serendipity Singers were brought in for a concert.
In 1986, the agency became the ninth in the state to be certified by the Missouri Department of Mental Health for Psychiatric Services. From the middle of April until August 5, COMTREA staff and over two hundred volunteers worked toward the passage of the $.10 tax. The issue passed with almost 60 percent of the vote, losing only three rural precincts out of 80. This guaranteed $800,000+ per year for mental health services to the county. In September, the County Commission appointed the COMTREA Board as the Community Mental Health Fund Board for the county as the presiding County Commissioner as a member. In October, COMTREA purchased property on Armbruster Road near Athena/DeSoto for the residential program mandated by the DADA. The property included a 4100 sq.ft. home, an outbuilding, 18 acres and a stocked pond. Staff spent the remainder of the year working on and developing the Spouse Abuse Shelter, residential chemical abuse treatment, and expanding other programs.
In 1988, the Jefferson County Day Treatment Program for children who were severely emotionally disturbed and severely behaviorally disordered opened six months after a group of educators met with COMTREA. That same year, Dr. Huss had an article published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The article, "Fighting Drug Abuse the Wrong Way," focused on the need for an overall attack on chemical use and abuse using prevention, education, outreach, case finding and treatment.