CareNet’s Northwest regional office marks its 40th year in 2023, having long since grown out of its humble beginning as a pastoral care and counseling center with a single, parttime employee in 1983 housed in First Baptist Church in North Wilkesboro.
Today, the Northwest region operates out of its principal in North Wilkesboro and a total of 12 locations in Wilkes County overall. There are 8.5 full-time equivalent therapists, as well as three clinical residents.
Robert Willis, who joined CareNet in 2011 as a resident working in Wilkes County, has been the region’s director since 2016. Growth has been the region’s hallmark, he says.
“It’s really about the way we are more out in the community,” he says. “Instead of just being a place where persons come to receive services, we are integrated into six schools, three primary care clinics and a church.”
Plans are under way for a 40th anniversary celebration and a fundraiser later this year, Willis says. The region last year resumed what had been a tradition before the COVID-19 pandemic—its Season of Caring fundraiser to support people who struggle to pay for mental health care.
With seven years as director, Willis represents another long-serving leader for the region, providing stability through its growth. The first true leader came when the fledgling regional board of directors in 1985 recruited the Rev. Dr. S. Steven Duncan as executive director and therapist at what was then known as the Pastoral Care & Counseling Center in Wilkes County.
The center had an early connection to what is now known as CareNet because the original home was a satellite office of the Life Enrichment Centers of Western North Carolina headquartered in Morganton, an office of the School of Pastoral Care at N.C. Baptist Hospital.
Duncan served as leader for 18 years, before being stricken with a rare disease, known as pre-leukemia, that took his life at age 60. Two interim therapists from CareNet, Inc. were recruited to see clients on a limited schedule, one of whom was the Rev. Bryan Hatcher, who also served as the agency’s executive director. Hatcher would remain in the region for seven years before moving to CareNet’s central administrative office; he would go on to become president of CareNet Inc. from 2018 until last April.
Willis says the work of the Northwest region remains vital. He sees continued growth in years to come.
“The need for our services is not decreasing,” Willis says. “I am hopeful that we will be able to hire more clinical staff, including substance abuse counselors, in the coming year. We are slated to hire a clinical resident in the Fall.”