After weathering a challenging year, South Lane Mental Health (SLMH) is embracing a new phase as it welcomes its newest executive director, Noah Zepeda.
Zepeda was born and raised in Oakridge, a rural upbringing he draws upon in framing his approach to the new position.
“I’ve always lived and worked in rural Oregon, especially rural Lane County, so I think I really bring to the table that I understand what rural communities are dealing with … and what the issues are,” he said.
Zepeda has an undergraduate degree in business administration and a Master of Science Management from Southern Oregon University. He began working at SLMH eight years ago as the director of finance and operations and held that position until the executive director position opened up.
After previous Executive Director Damien Sands stepped down at the end of September last year, Zepeda and Director of Quality Terry Mastin filled in the position as co-interim executive directors.
“And all this was happening in the middle of the pandemic,” Zepeda noted. “So it was challenging. It was a lot of work for both of us. But we were able to make it through.”
COVID-19 created a unique barrier to dealing with those who need mental health services by forcing the work and services to be conducted remotely.
“It was a real challenge for us to navigate going completely telehealth – teletherapy and telemedicine, doing tele-prescribing – it was something that we haven’t ever done before,” said Zepeda.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the organization has seen a 40 percent uptick in requests for services. Near the beginning of lockdowns, SLMH received a grant through Lane County which helped them create a system for video conferencing and be able to purchase tablets for clients who might not have access otherwise.
Still, Zepeda recalled that some clients weren’t interested in telehealth as a service.
On top of that, insurance companies had to come around to allowing the nonprofit to even bill for telehealth, which caused a financial hit as they were providing services they couldn’t bill for.
“So, like any nonprofit, you know, money was kind of tight there,” Zepeda said.
Despite the hardship, SLMH continued to serve.
“I think there is a big misnomer going around Cottage Grove that we are completely closed to in-person services,” said Zepeda. “Throughout the pandemic we have and will continue to see clients in-person based on the discretion of their therapist.”
SLMH’s ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) Program has remained a constant service throughout the restrictions. The ACT team helps people with severe and persistence mental illness to implement individualized plans.
“We just finished our ACT fidelity review and we were the only ACT program in the state that has been seeing their clients in-person throughout the pandemic,” Zepeda said, adding, “Our residential home has been staffed with in-person providers also throughout the pandemic. Our nurse practitioners have also been providing the majority of their prescribing services in-person.”
Though doors are currently closed to the public, appointments can be made to come into the buildings.
With a deep rural background, Zepeda is also aiming to refine the nonprofit’s focus for an area like Cottage Grove.
“One of my values is really understanding the culture of poverty and making sure that everybody here is getting training on the culture of poverty,” he explained.
The United State Census Bureau estimated Cottage Grove’s poverty rate to be nearly 20 percent in 2019. For a family of four, that meant living on less than $25,750 for the year.
Rural areas also have higher rates of trauma victims and substance abuse, said Zepeda. These troubles can be multiplied when public transportation is sparse.
“I really want to strive to meet people and serve them where we can,” he said. “We do send clinicians to foster homes, retirement homes,…