InBusiness Magazine article on Shelly Dutch

Connections Counseling: A chief executive heals herself

Article Date:

June 21, 2011

Shelly Dutch has come a long way in life, but she’d be the first to tell you she didn’t do it alone.

A recovering cocaine addict, Dutch knows better than most the importance of a support system, and so when she started Connections Counseling, an outpatient substance abuse and mental health clinic, in 2003, it was clear that it would be a commitment, not just a business.

“I’m in recovery myself, and that’s part of the reason I started this clinic,” said Dutch. “I needed someone to believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I was in my 20s when I went through this, and know that people, both the counseling staff and community support, is how I kept working on my life, and that’s the kind of direction we’ve gone here.”

Connections Counseling, which recently won a Dane County Small Business Award in the “woman-owned” category, employs a “strength-based” approach that relies on a caring, supportive environment “where growth is fostered and recovery becomes reality.”

“People who have been through our program and continue to maintain sobriety, they give back to others, and that’s the whole premise of how we’ve grown to the proportion we have in the community – we believe that service is critical, and part of strengthening your self worth is by giving back to others,” said Dutch. “So we have 18 groups and in all the groups we have mentors that are in recovery at some level.”

Back in 2003, Dutch started out with a bare-bones staff. Today, Connections Counseling employs a staff of 21, including psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, and master’s-level marriage and family psychotherapists who are trained and certified for addiction medicine. The company has a low staff turnover rate, which is a testament both to Dutch’s ability to maintain morale and the remarkable dedication of her staff, which takes the company’s guiding philosophy to heart.

“People who have been through our program and continue to maintain sobriety, they give back to others, and that’s the whole premise of how we’ve grown to the proportion we have in the community – we believe that service is critical, and part of strengthening your self worth is by giving back to others.” – Shelly Dutch, Connections Counseling

“We have a real compassionate and diverse staff that works really closely with the patients, their families, and the community to help provide resources for the patient, whether they need work or need to do some kind of physical activity. We help them incorporate the change and the personal growth and the life that they need.”“Our staff is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which means we are very invested in and committed to each of our patients,” said Dutch. “Each person on our staff has a caseload, and they don’t just see them an hour and that’s it. The strength-based approach means there’s a commitment to help them on their journey, whether it’s recovery from alcoholism, drug dependence, depression, or anxiety.

Supporting the community

Of course, before companies can be considered for a Dane County Small Business Award, they must show that they’re active in their neighborhood or community.

To that end, Connections Counseling has been involved in outreach efforts at area middle schools, high schools, and colleges, speaking out about substance abuse and treatment and working to reduce the stigma surrounding treatment and recovery.

Dutch also founded a nonprofit called the Recovery Foundation, which raises money for scholarships for people who can’t afford treatment or don’t have health care, andHorizon High School, a recovery school that provides an alternative to mainstreaming young addicts back into high schools. Horizon High School was created to address a perceived need in the community, and recently began contracting with Madison schools.

“One of my experiences was, we would send kids to treatment and try to integrate them into schools, and because the adolescent brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, they were not really able to make good choices, and the relapse rate was so high that it became necessary to start the school,” said Dutch.

Another challenge that people working in substance abuse treatment in this area face is the local drinking culture. According to Dutch, Wisconsin residents often struggle with alcohol more than people in other states.

“One of the things we see is a lot of parents as role models – how do they relax, how do they deal with being stressed out? They have a beer, glass of wine at the end of the day. We’re trying to increase awareness in the community and the state at large, through panels and education, that allows them to look at alternatives.”

While the robust growth Connections Counseling has experienced over the last few years – which has included a move to an expanded facility on University Avenue with 25 offices and four large group rooms – may have a tragic hue to it, Dutch also sees it as necessary, given the stressful times and economic troubles that are currently fueling substance abuse.

But there’s an upside to that growth as well.

“The other piece is that people are talking about [substance abuse] more because one of the things we’re doing is reducing the stigma so that people are more comfortable and willing to seek help now instead of spiraling into that out-of-control mode.”

Of course, just because you’re blessed with a dedicated staff doesn’t mean you can take them for granted. Dutch makes sure to recognize her employees and help them keep their heads above water.

“As a director of the clinic, I’m very invested in my staff,” said Dutch. “We have retreats, we have celebrations. We believe that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we become depleted and don’t have much to give. So in terms of taking time for themselves, for their families, looking at compensation and motivation, those are all things that are taken into consideration for keeping staff engaged in a healthy work environment.”

As for the Dane County Small Business Award, Dutch is characteristically grateful for the efforts of those close to her.

“I would like for the record to attribute it to Tami Bahr, my assistant director,” said Dutch. “We call her superwoman. I think the Small Business Award is a tribute to her. She is the one who is helping us grow and is overseeing the clinical and the business side of things and has really helped with staff morale.

“It’s a great honor to have the capacity as a clinic to affect people in our community the way we have, and that’s a tribute to my staff and Tami.”