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With $2 million federal grant, UnityPoint inches closer to new mental health facility at old Heddington Oaks site

Darin LaHood-Mike Unes-Mary Sparks Thompson-KeithKnepp sitting around table.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
U.S. Congressman Darin LaHood, R-Ill., visited UnityPoint Health Central Illinois on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, to discuss a $2 million federal grant for UnityPoint's new inpatient mental health services center that will replace the old Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria.

UnityPoint Health's new inpatient mental health center has received a key piece of funding: a $2 million federal grant for the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Center.

If successful in raising $24 million, UnityPoint's new center would replace the former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria, a 16-acre property at 2223 W. Heading Ave.

Dr. Keith Knepp, regional president and CEO of UPH-Central Illinois, said the expansion of behavioral health services can't come soon enough.

"We have catastrophic needs in this area right now," he said. "... We have this growing epidemic of behavioral health. It existed before the pandemic. It's even worse today. Our emergency room is straining. We have capacity challenges ... just the need for more services."

An average of 60 kids and adolescents are admitted to the inpatient behavioral health unit at UnityPoint Health-Methodist every month. Many more are turned away and referred to out-of-town facilities — some as far away as Chicago.

Knepp has said the additional space at Heddington Oaks will double the existing inpatient behavioral health capacity for youth in the Peoria area; in the last five years, 2,600 children and adolescents were turned away from Methodist and sent out of town for services.

UnityPoint's plan to repurpose the former Heddington Oaks senior home received a key approval last month when the Peoria County Board cleared the way for its sale. UnityPoint Health would pay Peoria County between $8 to $10 million to acquire Heddington Oaks. (The final number depends on how much state and federal funding UnityPoint secures for the project.)

The UPH-Central Illinois Foundation launched the Young Minds Project to raise $24 million for the new behavioral health center. An anonymous family is offering a $1 million matching gift for donations toward opening the center.

As of Tuesday, the Young Minds Project had received about half of the funds needed, Knepp said.

Darin LaHood and UP.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
U.S. Congressman Darin LaHood (R-IL) visited UnityPoint Health Central Illinois on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, to discuss a $2 million federal grant for UnityPoint's new inpatient mental health services center, which will replace the old Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria.

The $2 million grant comes from the federal appropriations committee's community funds program, and was facilitated by GOP U.S. Congressman Darin LaHood of Dunlap.

Whether it's people from the Children's Home, Center for Prevention of Abuse, or Peoria Police Department, LaHood said he often hears from community leaders that there aren't enough mental health options — not just in Peoria, but throughout downstate Illinois.

What UnityPoint is proposing for West Peoria will not just serve the Tri-County, LaHood said; the center will help children and adults from the Metro East outside of St. Louis up to communities just south of Interstate 80.

"The federal government played a small role in this, $2 million. But it's still $2 million of taxpayer money," he said. "I was proud to advocate for this in Washington, D.C."

Mary Sparks Thompson is the president of UnityPoint's UnityPlace, the hospital organization's wraparound mental health services outfit.

She told WCBU that design work is underway for the new center, and making the facility welcoming to children is top of mind.

"Anybody who's a parent knows children need to move, and they need to be outdoors," she said. "We will have the ability to move indoors ... the ability to be in the out of doors, in a natural healing environment."

The new center will make great use of "natural light," and patients shouldn't expect window-less, sterile rooms, she said. She also said she's having conversations about addressing potential issues around equity.

"We have a lot of discussion ... What's the best way to reach out to children in our community who need our resources?" she said. "That's a top priority for us."

Mary Sparks Thompson LaHood.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
U.S. Congressman Darin LaHood (R-IL) visited UnityPoint Health Central Illinois on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, to discuss a $2 million federal grant for UnityPoint's new inpatient mental health services center, which will replace the old Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria.

Sparks Thompson said the center's existence could dovetail with UnityPoint's co-responder model pilot program.

Proposed via a state bill written by Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth, D-Peoria, the pilot would send UnityPoint mental health workers along with police to some 911 calls.

"What the Young Minds Project will try to do is reduce, or eliminate altogether ... any barriers to service," Sparks Thompson said. "So all of the different entities that may interact with a child with behavioral health needs can have a common place to go to receive those services. The other things we hear from parents is, 'We don't know where to start' ... We would like to be that starting point for families."

Gordon Booth's bill also would open up funding for the Peoria Police Department to place UnityPoint staff within its juvenile and adult divisions to expedite access to treatment. The Illinois General Assembly recently approved the bill. Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign it into law.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.