Army of Angels

by Albertina Kerr Centers Foundation

Amber’s Story, December 2014

Amber’s story speaks to the impact of community-based children’s mental health services especially for those with the most acute mental health needs. The story is told by Amber’s aunt. She speaks of the deep anxiety caused by having a child with acute mental health needs. The services she found at Kerr changed quality of life for Amber and for her whole family.

Ten years ago my lovely niece Amber came into my life and dramatically changed both or our lives forever.  Amber was three years old when I was caring for her one afternoon, and noticed what looked like strangulation marks on her neck.  I suspected abuse may have been occurring in Amber’s unstable home.  My brother was in prison before Amber was born and back in prison again with a long history of drug abuse.  Amber was being raised by my sister in-law who also is addicted to drugs and was working as a stripper. 

I was hesitant to report this suspected abuse to the Department of Human Services.  I was afraid what would happen to Amber if she was taken from her home and the family conflict this would cause but I knew that Amber needed protection.  I made that difficult phone call to find out there were 12 other phone calls made before mine. 

After an investigation Amber was removed from her home and placed in the Oregon foster care system.  Being a close relative I was asked if I would care for Amber temporally in my home.  Of course I welcomed her with open arms along with my husband and two daughters and faintly realizing the many challenges that lay ahead.  Amber had fetal alcohol syndrome, not potty trained and was not talking in complete sentences.

I just thought loving Amber would fix everything.  But the classes I took from Department of Human Services did not prepare me for Amber’s frequent and extreme tantrums; something I have not experienced raising my children.  My husband who served in the Vietnam after the war equated Amber’s behavior from what he witnessed in Refugee camps.  We had Amber evaluated by a psychologist and sought treatment but her behavior just got worse. 

In third grade Amber was in a special needs and contained classroom.  Due to Amber’s fits the classroom often had to be cleared for the other children’s safety and I was often called to come pick her up from school.  I did not know what to do and was ready to give-up. 

I finally got connected to Albertina Kerr.  Before this nobody educated me how to raise a child with special needs and how very different this was to raising my other children.  I started to look at Amber differently.  Sandra, Albertina Kerr’s Family Coordinator, came to my home and meet with me a weekly.  Kerr’s therapist Chrissy Milner came to work with Amber. 

At first Chrissy did therapy with Amber and this was not effective.  She switched tactics and started some skills training with Amber.  They both build a “picture book and schedule”.  Amber liked and needed structure for her daily schedule and chores and the picture book worked.  They also developed a “fidget bag” full of little items to help Amber cope when she is angry.  There are bubbles for her to blow, poems to read and a spritzer bottle of peppermint to smell.   

Up front Chrissy told me she would be here until the family was strong and could step out of our lives.  At first I was upset, I could not visualize not always needing Kerr’s help.  But eventually, we were able to make the transition. When Kerr did step out of our lives our family was strong, I learned how to be a more effective parent, Amber was better and our family could cope.

Albertina Kerr has embarked on a historic multiphase capital campaign, Community Promise, to invest in the environments of care where Albertina Kerr strengthens communities. It is our largest and most consequential campaign since the late 1920s when volunteers raised funds to establish the Gresham campus and The Old Kerr Nursery. 

Kerr’s emergence as a “cornerstone organization” only happened due to those capital investments of nearly 90 years ago. The Community Promise capital campaign will help us deliver our promise to be there for vulnerable children and adults well into the future with: 
  • a specialized campus for children's mental health in Gresham which serves as the key resource in the state of Oregon for children’s acute mental health care (including an expansion of Crisis Psychiatric Care; replacing the Intensive Treatment Program building with neighborhood-based homes on and near campus; and the development of a community-based care hub);
  • new group homes for adults to replace aging houses with smaller homes that allow for more individualized care and more space for specialized equipment; 
  • and a foundation of financial resources for Kerr to thrive well into the future through the Community Promise Fund.

Community Promise is led by honorary chair Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler together with chairs Fritz and Lynn Bartsch. To learn more about how you can get involved in the Community Promise capital campaign, call Jodi Lippert at 503-262-0185. 

One in ten youth has serious mental health problems that are severe enough to impair how they function at home in school or in the community. When Rhonda and Jeff adopted their son Mintesnot (Minty) from Ethiopia five years ago, they found themselves in the midst of a mental health crisis that impacted their entire family. Essentially a street kid who has experiences unbelievable horrors, Minty has significant mental health challenges. The couple had made arrangements for a therapist when they brought him back to the United States but it was clear that he needed more help. Rhonda put it this way, "We were not safe. We never knew when an anger outburst was going to happen." After trying outpatient counseling and residential treatment programs, they were referred to Albertina Kerr's Crisis Psychiatric Care services. In addition to making the family feel safe and at home, the therapists at Albertina Kerr included Minty's parents in his treatment. When he came home, he was able to explain what he was fearful about for the first time. Today, Minty is doing well academically and is stable enough to play on the football team. As Rhonda said, "Albertina Kerr is the reason we are a family of five and our family is complete."

Kerr’s programs are unique in Oregon, providing intensive intervention and psychiatric treatment for toddlers, young children and teenagers from early childhood to 18. Twenty-one percent of low-income youth ages 6 to 17 have mental health challenges and one in ten has a mental health challenge that is severe enough to impair how they function at home, school, or in the community. Sadly, 75% to 80% of children with mental health challenges do not receive the mental health care they need during this critical phase of their life. Kerr provides treatment and skills training geared toward creating new potential for a healthy, productive life for each child. In the last year Kerr's Youth and Family Services reported the following results: 

Crisis Psychiatric Care: Kerr provided short-term residential care for 290 children with urgent mental health crises. Kerr works to stabilize children in crisis, provide effective mental health treatment and ultimately return the child to their home or a less intensive level of care. The program exceeded its outcome goals, transitioning 82% percent of children to a less intensive level of care, including returning to their family.

Intensive Community-Based Treatment Services: Kerr served 166 low-income children, ages 4 to 17, at risk of being unable to stay in their home or in school due to mental health challenges. Therapy, skills training, and intensive behavioral support allowed 93% of children to transition to less intensive care.

Community-Based Outpatient Services: Mental health services for 253 children, youth and their families were provided in community settings, including homes, schools and other locations. Services stabilize the child and other affected family members during periods of transition or disruption. During the year 92% of children transitioned to less intensive care.

Early Childhood Outpatient Services: Kerr served 49 pre-school children with behavioral challenges and their families. All 49 children showed improvement and were able to transition to less intensive care. Services result in the child and family developing skills the promote the child’s success and safety, preparing them to enter kindergarten ready to learn in their local community schools.

Special Needs & Therapeutic Foster Care: Kerr provided care for 90 children in foster care who have both mental health challenges and developmental disabilities and require skills training and extensive foster parent support.

Albertina Kerr also provides a wide range of services and programs designed to support children and adults with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy, empowering them to live richer lives. An estimated 38,000 individuals experience a developmental disability in Oregon. The people Kerr serves receive care, skills training and support for community involvement in their homes, in the community and in group homes.

Group Homes for Youth: Kerr provided 24-hour care and treatment for 107 youth, ages 9 to 18, with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges in 15 group homes. In aggregate, youth in group homes accomplished 85% of their Individual Service Plan goals and 86% of the youth who left group home had developed the skills necessary to move to a less restrictive environment.

Intensive Treatment Program for Youth: This 10-bed secure treatment program services youth with developmental disabilities, many of whom have concurrent mental health challenges. The only program of its kind in Oregon served 24 youth from across the state. Eighty-seven percent of the youth who left the program discharged having developed the skills to move to a less restrictive environment.

Group Homes for Adults: Kerr provided a neighborhood home in a residential community for 113 men and women with developmental disabilities in 31 group homes. Of the adults abled and inclined, 91% were socially engaged in meaningful relationships outside of their caregiving community. In aggregate, adults in group home care accomplished 93% of their Individual Service Plan goals.

Community Inclusion and Employment Services: A total of 277 adults and 43 youth participated in programs for people with developmental disabilities that give them the opportunity to participate in the workforce, join in activities and pursue hobbies that enrich their lives, leading to increased independence and community involvement. Fifty-four percent of the adult participants engaged in employment opportunities, while others explored different hobbies, developed interests, did volunteer work and experienced life in the community. Youth from Kerr’s Youth Group Homes volunteered 408 hours at Kerr Bikes, a bicycle rental business in Portland’s Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Into our second century, Albertina Kerr continues to develop innovative solutions and expand capacity for community needs. Community support is vital to our work; public funding fails to meet the vast need. Private support helps create a society that has no barriers.


When you support Albertina Kerr, you make a difference for a family in crisis. In 2012, Amy found out that her daughter had been trying to deal with it by herself and got to the point where she felt that "the only thing she could do was end her life." After a terrifying trip to the emergency room following a suicide attempt, Amy and her daughter walked through the doors of the Crisis Psychiatric Care program. "I was scared knowing she wasn't coming home with me, but relieved knowing that she was getting the help she needed," said Amy.

Albertina Kerr's Crisis Psychiatric Care program offers short-term residential care and 24-hour access to mental health care for children experiencing a mental health crisis. During her stay, Amy's daughter was supported by a dedicated team who gave her the professional psychiatric care, family therapy and skill necessary to move forward. According to Amy, the staff at Albertina Kerr helped her daughter feel like her life was worth living. Learn more about her story by watching the video here.


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Organization Information

Albertina Kerr Centers Foundation

Location: Portland, OR - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Development Staff
Portland, Oregon United States

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