‘People are loved and valued here’

David Henninger, head of Bayaud Enterprises, steps down after half-century

Posted

David Henninger sits behind his desk at Bayaud Enterprises, the December sun streaming in behind him. He is reflecting on his life’s work connecting people in need to jobs, helping to give them the means to forge their own path in life. December was Henninger’s last month as the executive director of the 50-year-old nonprofit, which he helped to found in 1969.

Since day one, Henninger has strived to remove barriers to jobs for those with mental health issues and/or dealing with homelessness. His passion for the issue has only grown in the time since he first started working in mental health.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We had to develop a lot of alternatives,” he said. “I feel even more passionate about that in 2019 than I did in 1967. Work is just so damn important.”

Over the years, Bayaud has evolved from an organization connecting people to jobs, to a nonprofit offering a multitude of services for people dealing with mental illness or homelessness. For Henninger, jobs and the housing crisis are closely intertwined. Without jobs, people may not be able to stay in the affordable housing projects the city is working to build.

From a similar perspective, Henninger said Bayaud quickly began expanding its services to the homeless as well because so many of those individuals are also dealing with their mental health — whether diagnosed or not.

A majority of the 2,000 people that Bayaud serves annually do not have permanent housing, Henninger said. He also estimated that 70% to 75% of them have a disability of some sort.

This extends not only to people using Bayaud Services, but to staff members as well. Lynda Drake, a job developer with Bayaud, said that after her three children were diagnosed with various disabilities, it was difficult to find a job that would take her. As a mother, she needed to be there for her children if they were having problems, and this required a different work culture. She needed understanding, not just flexibility.

“Because of that, I can’t work in a normal place,” she said. “David was so phenomenal. He always has time.”

She added that she always says a blessing to Bayaud because people aren’t just numbers served at a nonprofit. “People are loved and valued here,” she said.

Job connection

Before starting Bayaud, Henninger worked at Fort Logan Mental Health, one of the few hospitals in Denver treating people for a variety of mental health disorders. Back then, mental health treatment was divided into six areas based on a person’s location in Denver. Fort Logan offered a work therapy program, something that was unique from the other hospitals in the 1960s.

No matter what a person’s specific mental illness was, the process at Fort Logan was that a patient would be admitted for an average of 90 days. After being discharged, many people went into an assisted living home. But while there, those people were often left twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do, Henninger said. But, in order to get back into the work therapy program, patients needed to re-admit themselves to the hospital for a day program, something that cost the state $80 per day, per person.

“There was no treatment going on, they just wanted to work,” he said. “It was not cost relevant, plus it was putting a person back in an institution.”

Other organizations that provided aid to disabled groups such as the blind or intellectually disabled didn’t want to take on patients that had been in a mental institution. The general feeling at the time was that people who were born with those disabilities couldn’t help it, Henninger said. Mental illness, on the other hand, was seen as something that people could just get over — or worse, that people were making up their condition entirely.

So Henninger and other staff at Fort Logan presented their case to the state Legislature and were given $10,000 and the salary for one full-time staff member to create a new jobs program. They rented a building on Bayaud Avenue, just up the street from the current location at 333 W. Bayaud Ave.

The first jobs Bayaud helped connect people to were assembling products at a local factory. But Henninger said he didn’t want jobs that put people “out of sight, out of mind.” He wanted to make sure they were making a livable wage and doing meaningful work.

Kyle Johnson said that he’s spent most of his adult life in Denver, and has used Bayaud off and on over the years, never realizing until recently how much the organization could help. He spent time protesting in the Occupy Denver Movement in 2011, and said that it made advocacy a big part of his life, as well as something he hopes to continue doing.

Bayaud helped connect him to a job where he will be working in housing geared specifically toward people with disabilities. Even if he struggles in his own mental health, he knows now that Bayaud will be there.

“These guys stick with you,” he said.

Changes in understanding

In addition to the changes over time at Bayaud, Henninger has been at the forefront of mental health changes in Denver. Back in the `60s, it was hard for anyone with mental health issues to get jobs due to stigma — one that still exists to a lesser extent today.

Henninger said that back then, people picked up by police who were suspected to have a mental health condition were committed against their will. Now, in the same situation, those people get taken to jail.

“We’ve created this, what I would call street-to-jail track,” he said. “The prisons, obviously, and the jails are not equipped to provide relevant mental health treatment.”

Battling this stigma can be harmful. People can view a sufferer as lesser or broken. For Chris Salas, who first came to Bayaud after staff found him sleeping in the parking lot, the nonprofit is a place where he doesn’t have to hide anything.

It’s “a place where you can really be authenticated,” he said.

In addition to job services, Bayaud also organizes group talks like Beyond Bayaud, which meets on Thursday nights. Members of the group all agreed on Henninger’s kind spirit, someone who took time to listen to them when others wouldn’t.

“When he provides for one person, you know that everyone is going to get the same,” said Sylvia Wiechmann.

But Beyond Bayaud also presents another opportunity: one for the group to grow and learn from each other.

For Gene Starks, it’s “socialization that’s been missing.” He also said it was a resource he didn’t realize was available at first.

Moving forward

As Bayaud moves into the future, Henninger will still be part of the nonprofit. After taking the next three months off, he will return as a board member. Henninger is also on the board of several other Colorado nonprofits. He plans on returning to teaching classes on nonprofit management at Regis University as well.

What he said he’s most excited for is the new leadership team at Bayaud. For the first time, the executive team is made up of all women.

“They are strong, each individually, and probably just as important, collectively,” Henninger said. “I love that. I love what they’re bringing to this organization. They’re going to take Bayaud beyond anything I could have done.”

For Drake, Henninger’s kindness and generosity of heart will always be the guiding force at the nonprofit.

“I’m really glad he planted that seed,” she said. “You just don’t find people like that.”

Comments

Our Papers

Ad blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.