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Mental health champion traces inspiration to disabled brother (Video)

By JR Ortega
April 20, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2013 at 11:21 p.m.

Big brother Ray Polzin jokes around with his younger brother, Don Polzin, at Twin Pines Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Friday. Ray's special needs  makes Don's role as executive director of Gulf Bend Center a personal experience.

Gulf Bend History

1957 - Junior Service League Victoria addresses intellectual and developmental disabilities. Organization responsible for development and eventual evolution of Gulf Bend Center for Children and Youth.

1965 - Gulf Bend Center for Children and Youth opens and provides diagnosis and rehabilitation of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities or emotional disturbance.

1965 - The Texas Legislature passes the Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act. Area research indicates a need for expansion of mental health care.

1969 - An in-depth area study proposes to build a Gulf Bend Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center.

1970 - Gulf Bend Center opens doors in Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson, Refugio and Victoria counties at 2006 N. Navarro St.

1970 - Thomas G. Kelliher Jr. becomes executive director of Gulf Bend Center.

1974 - Lavaca County joins Gulf Bend Center's service area.

1984 - Gulf Bend Center moves to 1404 Village Drive.

1986 - Bill Dillard becomes the executive director of Gulf Bend Center.

1994 - Gulf Bend center moves to 1502 E. Airline Road.

1998 - Don Polzin becomes executive director of Gulf Bend Center.

2008 - Center expands to Gulf Bend Regional Plaza at 6502 Nursery Drive.

"There comes a point in time when you think, 'What does the Lord have planned for us?' I've asked that myself many times."

Don Polzin, April 1998

To Don Polzin, any moment is a matter of business and of utmost importance.

In several months, the Affordable Care Act takes full effect, and plenty needs to happen to integrate mental and physical health in the Crossroads.

Also, projects are underway to ensure this integration runs smoothly; after all, this is the 65-year-old Gulf Bend Center executive director's time to truly shine - his legacy.

Although nationally recognized in March for excellency in mental health advocacy, Polzin considers his 35-year vision to make mental health everyone's issue far from over.



The man on the third floor

The eagle's-eye view from Polzin's office is not necessarily breathtaking, but it is still a sight to behold.

"I'm coming to a point in my career where I can see the horizon," Polzin says, taking a look out the window from his small conference table.

It is on this third floor of Gulf Bend Regional Plaza on Nursery Drive that discussions ensue about making the world a better place.

Manila folders with overflowing paperwork cloak much of Polzin's cherry-wooden desk.

Framed photographs show a different side to the 6-foot, 1-inch man.

In one photo, Polzin holds a granddaughter. He wears a wide smile and something that is not a suit and tie, his characteristic attire.

Life-like paintings of the West hang throughout the office. They are the work of his 39-year-old son, Kyle, a nationally recognized artist.

This is the life of Polzin that many both know and maybe don't know.

A Cuero native, Polzin is the son of Leon and Mary Polzin. His father owned a glass company in town.

But his mother's passion is what shaped the road Polzin has been traveling for years.

Before serving at Gulf Bend, Polzin served as assistant city manager in Cuero for three years and then as an administrative aide for the Department of Community Affairs in Victoria.

That was until his mother, who served on the Gulf Bend charter board, stepped down in 1978 so her son could step up as assistant executive director.

Polzin takes after his mother, whose passion for mental health was not happenstance. Her oldest son, Ray, 67, has intellectual disabilities.

"She didn't mind speaking up for what she believed in," Polzin said. "I learned a lot from my mom in that regard. I guess you can say to some extent I was raised right."

It's life with Ray that also helped make Polzin into who he is today.



His name is Ray

Saturdays as a child were spent in San Antonio, and life wasn't easy.

When Polzin was about 14, his parents decided to move his brother, Ray, to Mission Road, a live-in facility in San Antonio.

Those days were tough, Polzin recalled.

"He's my inspiration," Polzin said, voice cracking. "If there is anybody who has a will to live, he does."

Today, Polzin's brother is at Twin Pines Nursing Home in Victoria. He is no longer able to use the right side of his body because his cerebral palsy has worsened.

Along with those intellectual and physical disabilities has come mental illness, like depression. But through persistence, Ray has gotten through it, Polzin said.

"When I put my mind to doing something, I'll do it," Ray said in the library of Twin Pines during one of his brother's regular visits.

Ray enjoys telling stories about their childhood, like shooting talcum powder and small chili peppers at one another.

Polzin laughs, slightly throwing his head back.

Ray said he is proud of his brother and all he's done for others. Ray says he's the exact same way.

"I like helping people," Ray said, smiling.

What Polzin finds the hardest is how his brother's mind is mostly developed, but his body is not.

Polzin remembers one recent conversation with his brother on the phone. It's one memory he revisits often.

"He called me up and said, 'I want a fly rod.' Ray can't use a fly rod," Polzin recalls. "Then Ray calls and says, 'Donny, I want to go see if I can get my driver's license.' He does not recognize limitations."

Ray has been through Gulf Bend's system, so Polzin is familiar with what families want and what they are going through.

They are scared and want hope, he said. And that sort of hope can be seen in someone like his brother.

"Possibilities are what keep him hopeful. It drives his will to live," Polzin said. "If we all had that kind of drive, what would our potential be?"



Becoming a leader

Lane Johnson calls Polzin the heart of Gulf Bend, and he is not the only one who shares that sentiment, he said.

Johnson, the associate executive clinical director at Gulf Bend and licensed professional counselor, started work there two years before Polzin came on board.

"Very few times do you hear things come out of his mouth by accident," Johnson said about the person who is not only his boss but also his friend.

Johnson said he saw Polzin as a strong administrator even back in 1978. Johnson left Gulf Bend to practice privately in 1986 but in 2009, came back on board.

"I jumped at the opportunity," he said. "He has a passion for his employees, and that has just been heartwarming."

Polzin received his master's degree from the University of Houston-Victoria with emphases in business and psychology. But his undergraduate years tell a different story.

They show the story of his son, Kyle. Polzin wanted to be an artist.

"It just didn't happen," Polzin said, laughing.

Instead, he learned a lot about management styles during his stint in city government and then under the leadership of Tom Kelliher, the executive director of Gulf Bend who hired him, and later, Bill Dillard, whom he replaced.

While Kelliher called the shots and dictated what people should do, Dillard did the same but through delegation. Those two styles are something he respected and learned from, he said.

"I had the best of both worlds. That had a big influence on me," he said.

Aside from Gulf Bend, Polzin has also served as president of the Victoria Lions Club and been on numerous boards, including the United Way and the state Special Olympics.

Most recently, he became chairman of the new Hope of South Texas.

It was not only his former bosses who taught him leadership, he said, but he also owes a lot to his mother, who taught him about passion, and his father, who taught him about giving people what they need and keeping your promise.

"I think I've been able to bring the center to a different level," he said.

Bette-jo Buhler, 91,was on the board with Polzin's mother, and though she didn't know much about Polzin then, she knows now.

"She was a marvelous person," Buhler said of Polzin's mother. "He is certainly as every bit as thoughtful of everyone and as hard a worker."

Polzin's mother was a representative of DeWitt County, and Buhler saidmembers of the board were all interested in mental health because of mental illness in their own families.

"I'm proud to see how much he has made it grow," she said.



On the horizon

Back in the office, Polzin continues discussing some of the future projects planned, which he said will change how the public views health care.

This office is the biggest one Gulf Bend has ever had, compared to where he first started on Port Lavaca Drive. Since then, the center has moved three times.

The big push in the coming years is to receive bipartisan support to ensure behavioral health care is supported by everyone, including legislators.

"You can't treat the body without treating the brain," he said.

Change is happening, Polzin said, and he can't wait to face it head on.

"Anything good takes time," he said. "I can't believe that the work that we are doing is not right. We just have to have faith in that and stay the course, and in time, things will change."

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