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My first experience with AspenPointe, a local mental health service provider, was watching some of its clients make pad Thai for me.

Like most people, I didn't see the connection. But I was curious.

As it turns out, AspenPointe's executives must have really taken to heart that old office adage about "out of the box" thinking. Decades ago, they saw that they could help their clients with therapy and medication, but they also saw that those services often fell short of transforming people's lives. Their clients needed a sense of pride and purpose. And in many cases they also needed an income.

In short, they needed jobs.

And here's where that out-of-the-box thinking comes in (see cover story). Rather than simply point out the problem, or ask other companies to employ people with mental illness, AspenPointe cultivated and opened blue-collar businesses, from custodial services to cafés, and then hired its own clients.

That was a big leap — some say too big — and it only expanded from there. AspenPointe grew to develop job training programs and other helping businesses for not only those with mental illness, but for others who struggle, like 19-year-old Ernestine Brooks, a high school dropout.

AspenPointe helped Ernestine earn her GED and sign up for community college. And they gave her a support system.

"It's almost like having older brothers and sisters looking out for you," she told me recently.

From pad Thai to GEDs, AspenPointe is undoubtedly changing the face of mental health care locally.

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