Our Neighbors.... Kim Matteen Orlowski

Kim Matteen's career in the mental health field can be summed up in one word - humbling. Matteen is the Program Director for the Human Development Center in Cloquet. After graduating from Carlton High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth...

Kim Matteen's career in the mental health field can be summed up in one word - humbling.

Matteen is the Program Director for the Human Development Center in Cloquet. After graduating from Carlton High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she knew she wanted to start a career in mental health. However, her life adventure took her all over the United States - starting in Hawaii, then Orlando, Fla., and finally back home to Carlton in 1994.

Now she's right where she needs to be.

"We're so glad we moved back to Carlton," said Matteen. "Tim [Orlowski, Matteen's husband] and I have large families that still live in the area. We knew it's where we wanted to be."

Her First Path


While at UMD pursuing a degree in psychology, Matteen envisioned herself after graduation working with troubled teens. During her junior year she had some decisions to make and credits her academic advisor with helping to steer her down the road she's currently on.

"As I was approaching my senior year, my advisor said, 'Why don't you do your pre-professional field placement at Independent Station at the Human Development Center?' So I did it," said Matteen. "I ended up working 42 hours a week for an entire summer and had a really good experience with people who have serious and persistent mental illness - a population of people that I'd never been exposed to. I was only 21 years old and what I learned was actually quite a shock. Many people who had spent a substantial part of their lives at the former Moose Lake State Hospital were being discharged and began living independently or in boarding and lodging homes.

"Back then things were different," said Matteen. "Medication has come a long way. We had the same serious mental illnesses as today, but there weren't a lot of medication options available to help relieve the symptoms of the illnesses. At Independent Station we would try to integrate clients back into the community. We'd do some education on mental illness, communication and social skills training, and fun events. Working there really opened my eyes as far as mental health is concerned."

Aloha, Hawaii!

Then, Orlowski's employer made him an offer to open up a mega-resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. Being newlyweds (Kim and Tim had been married about six weeks), it sounded like a great adventure and they decided to go for it.

"My first job in Hawaii was at a small non-profit, working with people who experienced mental illness and were living in an adult foster-care type setting." said Matteen. "However, my second job in Hawaii was pretty much my dream job. I had a state job as a case manager in a rural, beautiful area, I was able to help people first-hand and do homeless outreach. The best part? I had my own brand-new state car, my boss was 60 miles away and I was able to do a lot of creative, fun things with my clients. Those were the good old days!"

One particular experience Matteen can recall during the homeless outreach portion of her case management job involved a client who lived in, shall we say, "rural" Hawaii.

"I had a client who had this absolutely gorgeous piece of land he 'squatted' on that was owned by a Japanese real estate holding company," said Matteen. "He basically had no shelter, but what he did have he made very home-like. It was this beautiful private lagoon near a small beach where he had a couch, a camp stove and nice little living quarters. I guess if you had to be homeless, this was an OK place to be."


Matteen claims Hawaii was a fruitful experience.

"It's such a wonderful melting pot of many cultures," she said. "I was able to meet and interact with people from all parts of the world. I learned a lot there and still have, what Tim and I consider family there."

Matteen and Orlowski lived in Hawaii from 1988-1992. In mid-1992, they moved back to the "mainland" and relocated to Orlando. While living in Florida, Matteen also served as a mental health case manager.

Back to Carlton

Even after living in such tropical paradises as Hawaii and Orlando, Matteen and Orlowski's ultimate goal was to move back home to the Carlton area. Finally, in 1994, their dream had come true.

"When we first moved away, we never thought it would take seven years for us to get back home," said Matteen. "Tim grew up in Blackhoof and I lived just on the other side of Lake Venoah. We didn't want this area just to be our childhood home - we wanted to make it our home for good. We missed our families tremendously."

When they first arrived back in town, Matteen worked at the Human Development Center in Duluth. However, as soon as a position at the Human Development Center in Cloquet opened up, she took it.

Matteen has now been working with the Human Development Center for over 12 years. Each year she becomes even more passionate about people who have failing or poor mental health.


"Most people have had some experience with mental health, whether it's themselves or a family member, or someone they know," said Matteen. "But mental health is still treated much differently than 'physical' health. When you get cancer, diabetes or have a heart attack, everybody knows and you get cards and visits. People check in on you and want to try to understand how you feel.

"But when you come down with major depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorder and become hospitalized because of it, you're treated much differently. It's a very lonely illness," added Matteen. "Our society still has a lot of stigma with mental health. But you know, I like to think that it's getting better and better every day."

Matteen admits working in the mental health field is actually quite mentally and emotionally challenging. She feels it's nearly impossible that those employed in the mental health and social work fields are able to simply leave their work "at the office."

"For many, many years I was in people's homes every day seeing the chaos, pain and suffering that goes with serious mental illness," said Matteen. "Like any mental health worker in my position [as a Community Support Worker] sometimes I didn't know where some of my clients were going to sleep that night. I didn't know if they were going to eat. I didn't know if they were going to be safe. They were oftentimes very alone. That's pretty tough to shut off. Of course, you have to 'shut it off' at some level, but I've never been able to live my life where I can 100 percent let it go."

Matteen was a CSP worker at HDC for nearly five years when she reluctantly accepted the position of program director in 2000. Her hesitation about accepting the new job was simply because she enjoyed her current job so much. In fact, the HDC's then-executive director had to ask her on three separate occasions before she finally accepted the position.

"You know, I was really happy with my job at the time, and didn't want to change that," she said. "I was really passionate about it - and I enjoyed my work. Every day was a different adventure. I was helping people, I didn't get stuck behind a desk, and I was able to be out in the community. I'm an extrovert, so I really enjoy being out and meeting and mingling with people. I knew becoming program director would change all of that.

"Adjusting to my current position took at least three years," said Matteen. "It's 100 percent different from being a CSP worker. I had gone from total direct client care to about 50 percent and the job just evolved to where I am now, with no clients and caseload. The only contact with clients is the work I do with the Outreach Center. It's my favorite part of the job."

"The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done"


One of the Human Development Center's programs since 1992 has been the Outreach Center. It's mission is to provide a safe and supportive environment for individuals experiencing mental health issues. Their services include information and referral, socialization and recreation, support groups, vocational and volunteer opportunities. The program had moved three times in eight years and it really needed a permanent home in the right kind of building in order for the clientele and program to blossom. At about the same time HDC was aware of the high need for affordable, permanent supportive housing for some of their clients. One way to address both needs was to build an Outreach Center with attached apartments - which is exactly what they did.

Matteen and others at the HDC began filling out the proper paperwork as required by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other housing funders and eventually raised the $885,000 needed to building a brand new Outreach Center. However, there was a huge problem - the question of where to build.

"Site control ended up being the hardest part of this project," said Matteen. "The money was being committed for the building, but we couldn't locate a suitable spot that the funders would approve. The people at HUD and MHFA said it couldn't be too commercial, it couldn't be in the middle of nowhere, it needed to be near things, but not too close and all kinds of other restrictions. We couldn't locate anything for quite some time. So I went to [Cloquet City Adminstrator] Brian Fritsinger and eventually we figured out a place that might be suitable. The funders loved it but it was met with a lot of controversy, but that's an entirely separate story. Anyway, after tons of sweat and sleepless nights, we eventually got it built. It was the hardest thing I've ever done."

Fighting The Stigma

Matteen and others knew a place like a new Outreach Center may not be immediately welcome in a neighborhood near downtown Cloquet, another reason she's working to educate the public about mental illness.

"When the Outreach Center was finished, we knew we had some stigma to overcome," said Matteen. "So we've been working hard ever since to keep the public 'in the know' about why we're here and what we do."

Because of all the press and controversy surrounding the new Outreach Center Apartments project, Matteen received what she calls a "$50,000 Phone Call."

"I took a phone call from a lady who said she'd been following the developments with the building of the Outreach Center in the local newspapers (Cloquet Journal and Pine Knot) and said she wanted to make a donation," said Matteen. "To make a long story short, I about dropped the phone and began tearing up when she told me to 'expect a check for $50,000 from our Foundation.'"


Actually, Matteen said she'd only accept the money if she could meet the anonymous donor in person to thank her.

"To have an anonymous person with just a few current ties to the community give an unsolicited gift was unbelievable," said Matteen. "You know, things happen for a reason. If there hadn't been all that controversy around the building of the Outreach Center, we wouldn't have had this beautiful gift. It has been such a blessing!"


Matteen still lives on Chub Lake and has taken on a new title since June - mom. She and Orlowski are going through the adoption process with three children, and according to Matteen, going from zero to three kids overnight is NOT for the weak.

"Kids are difficult - but it's a good kind of difficult," said Matteen. "We wanted to have kids, and this is just how it worked out. You know, along with being my husband, Tim's also my best friend. We can do this."

On top of having a job she likes and a family she loves, Matteen also stays busy throughout the community. She's on the board for Inter-Faith Care Center, volunteers for the United Way of Carlton County and stays involved at J.M. Paine Presbyterian Church. Humility has been the key to Matteen's successes in leading a fruitful life - whether it's at work or at home.

"Has my life been great and awesome? Not always. Nobody's is," said Matteen. "My mantra is Ola Mai'kai, which is Hawaiian for 'Life is Good.' I think I have it better that 99.99 percent of the world, and I have an obligation to give back to those in need. That's what gets me up in the morning."

Pine Journal Editor Mat Gilderman can be contacted at: .

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