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Historic Jefferson Bank building now a symbol of hope for veterans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2009 - The symbolism wasn't lost on anyone as the St. Louis VA dedicated a new veterans mental health clinic in the old Jefferson Bank building, the scene of landmark civil rights protests in the 1960s.

The angled blue building at the corner of North Jefferson and Washington has been renovated and given a new name and purpose: Hope Recovery Center, which brings together various outpatient programs under one roof.

Glen Struchtemeyer, director of the St. Louis VA Medical Center, and Chaplain Robert Collingwood both noted the historic importance of the building as a place of transformation. The civil rights demonstrations, which started in August 1963, ultimately opened up employment opportunities for blacks in banking and other industries.

Kate Lewis, the center's manager, said the building rehab was designed to preserve some of the bank's architectural details. There is a computer lab where the old bank drive-up used to be, and the vault now houses a fitness center. Coffee will be brewed in the ornate tellers' cage in the lobby, and the marble tellers' windows have been renovated to hold art.

But despite those remnants of history, Lewis said the center is about the future: providing work therapy and social rehabilitation programs, for example, and care for homeless veterans. Lewis said the center represents a shift in mental-health care, from simply treating symptoms to focusing on recovery.

Rose Ganz, an Air Force veteran who served on the veterans advisory council for the project, said she knows firsthand the importance of the new philosophy. Ganz, who will volunteer at the center, said she sought treatment from the VA when the medication she takes for multiple sclerosis caused her to develop depression.

"The consensus used to be that once you were treated for depression or any mental illness that the mental illness would be with you forever,'' Ganz said. "What has changed is that people now believe that you can recover.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.