How Tess Pearson revived one of Nantucket’s oldest and most vital nonprofits.
As cold and darkness descend upon Nantucket each winter, the intense quiet can quickly give way to a sense of isolation and despair. Hidden from public view, many islanders battle depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction, which has hit epidemic proportions in recent years. Thankfully, these folks have a lifeline on Nantucket. As the oldest not-for-profit organization on the island, Family and Children’s Services has been an invaluable source of support and treatment for fifty-five years. In the last year, they responded to 288 incidences, treated more than 500 people, and counted 23,000 patient visits. Despite the great demand for their care, Family and Children’s Services was just weeks away from closing its doors two short years ago. But that was when Tess Pearson took the helm.
A vibrant young therapist, Tess Pearson had been on the staff for three years when she was appointed interim director in 2013. “After only a month we knew that she was the right one for the job,” said Amanda Congdon, the president of the board of directors. “The agency needed a complete overhaul to get us back on track, and Tess stepped up when we needed her.” The agency was in the red due to dated practices, lack of current technology, and inadequate funding. Over the course of her leadership, Tess has successfully turned the agency around financially, adding 21st century technology and a long line of best practices. She’s established key relationships with local representatives, developed a comprehensive grant program, and reconfigured the Seconds Shop thrift store on Sparks Avenue, which directly benefits the agency.
While Family and Children’s Services may have been turned around financially, the needs the organization meets within the community remain as dire as ever. “This year in particular has been difficult,” says Tess. She and her highly-trained team of twenty-seven therapists, counselors and support staff have dealt with cases of violence, both suicide and murder, drug overdoses, and significant mental health breakdowns in the past year. “A bad day is when someone has gotten to the last straw and things become so overwhelming that the only choice they feel they have is to hurt themselves,” Tess says. “But we are here to work with them or possibly stage an intervention that could open their eyes to what’s important, giving them a reason to live or become sober.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge Tess and the agency face is one of perception. Mental health and the treatment of substance abuse has always carried a stigma. “It’s a small community and many people can be fearful of seeking treatment,” Tess explains. “People think, ‘I don’t want others to see me dealing with this,’ but it’s okay to reach out and look for help no matter what the issue is.”
Mental and emotional challenges for people living on Nantucket can stem from the seasonality of work, the long winters, or the inherent expenses (and resulting stress) of living on the island. People feel “fogged in,” leading to depression, which Tess says affects one in three people on the island. Heroin use has also become commonplace on Nantucket, mirroring the growing epidemic occurring throughout other New England communities. And the profile of those falling into the perils of heroin addiction is not what you might think.
“We have young people that are returning home from college and have yet to find jobs,” Tess says. “Boredom can turn into depression and that can lead to dependency. There is a lot of misperception with people believing they can dabble in drugs, and addiction won’t happen to them.” The reality is that full-blown addiction often occurs within months of first trying heroin. “We have to recognize that substance abuse has been a problem in our community.”
Tess and her team combat these cases of depression and drug addiction on the island by working with patients over the course of many visits. They create safety nets for them and teach their families how to best support their recovery. Through the full spectrum of their services, Tess and her team can bring people back from the depths of depression or drug addiction and into a productive place in their lives. “Amazing things happen when we can all pull together,” Tess says. “This comes through family, friends and school connections. Out of every challenge comes an opportunity for growth and an opportunity to look out for one another and begin to shift the paradigm.”
Tess’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. At the closing ceremonies at this year’s Nantucket Project, she was given the Fellowship Award. “Not many of us face the reality — sometimes literally of life and death struggles — that Tess faces,” says Tom Scott, the co-founder of the Nantucket Project. “She does it consistently and with consistent dignity. It’s a beautiful thing and we need the Tesses of this world on the front lines. We owe her our respect and gratitude.”
Looking to the future, Tess seeks to grow Family and Children’s Services and possibly build a new facility in the coming years. This will require continued innovation on her part as the organization was recently hit with another crisis of sorts when Governor Charlie Baker’s administration cut a large amount of funding to this area, which directly affects the organization’s bottom line. Undeterred, Tess and her board are working with Nantucket’s state and local representatives as well as other island not-for-profits to recoup some of the resources lost and continue on their mission. “The ideal would be that we work ourselves out of a job,” says Tess, to edge Nantucket closer and closer to becoming a community where these terrible issues become distant and faded memories.