Sunday Sitdown: Aiming to offer more for those in need

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Brenda Thompson founder and CEO of E.M. Branch & Associates. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Even as mental health centers around Chicago have closed for lack of government funding, Brenda Thompson has been expanding her firm’s mental health and supervised child-visitation programs. Now, Thompson, who grew in Bronzeville, the oldest of six siblings, is looking to expand her company, E.M. Branch & Associates, further, aiming to raise $600,000 to buy a building across from the main office at 11111 S. Western Ave. Thompson, the founder and CEO, spoke with Sandra Guy of the Chicago Sun-Times. An edited transcript follows.

Question: What’s behind the name E.M. Branch?

Answer: It’s named after my mother, Eddie Mae Branch-Carter. She was pregnant when my parents divorced. We went a long time with my mother trying to find work while she was pregnant.

For a time, our family was starving even though we were living in this large city. My mother would have us children take pop bottles to the store to redeem them so we could eat. Many days, I would come home from school crying because the other kids were making fun of me. I had holes in my shoes. We didn’t have heat or electricity at times.

Many people in the community helped to feed us. When my mother finally put her pride aside and applied for public assistance, she was treated really horribly. Case-workers treated her like a bum. There was always this imminent threat you weren’t going to get benefits because of some capricious reason.

My mother was taught to never accept charity. I watched how she was being treated by a system that was supposed to help her. I decided when I was about 11, “When I grow up, I am going to make a difference.”

We all have to do our part. I can’t look only at government, or one person, to act. We all have a responsibility.

My mother is my hero. She worked as a maid for white families and worked in factories to try to instill hope in us of fulfilling dreams she saw in more affluent families’ lives, such as owning one’s own home.

Q: How did the Affordable Care Act, which has lost many insurance providers, help you expand?

A: A designation as a woman-owned and operated and minority-owned business helped us gain larger contracts with some insurance companies since, under the Affordable Care Act, 20 percent of the firms’ business has to go to veteran-, female- or minority-owned businesses. We also received a loan from Accion, a micro-lender that supports small business owners in underserved communities.

Q: You’ve been traveling — South Africa, France, Ireland, the U.K. and, next, Nicaragua — as part of your research for a Ph.D. from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. What’s your goal with your flagship program, which provides supervised visitation and exchanges for victims of domestic violence and their families?

A: The not-for-profit arm of my company, The Branch Family Institute, in 2002 received a contract through the city of Chicago because the lack of funding caused another South Side agency to close. We became part of a demonstration project with two other agencies, Apna Ghar and Mujeres Latinas en Accion, to develop best practices for operating visitation programs throughout the country.

The institute also provides counseling, clinical training for interns getting their master’s degrees, early-intervention for senior citizens and a program for the chronically mentally ill.

Q: After 40 years in social services, you’re more dependent now on private money.

A: The state had not paying for mental health services because of the stalled budget. So lots of psychiatrists don’t want to take clients. My staff is spending lots of time trying to find psychiatric care.

Brenda Thompson: “My inspiration, still a fixture at the business at 84 years old, my mother, still comes to volunteer three days a week.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

Brenda Thompson: “My inspiration, still a fixture at the business at 84 years old, my mother, still comes to volunteer three days a week.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

We dream about buying a building right across the street to start an intensive outpatient program — particularly for adolescents.

We chose the Beverly-Morgan Park community for our main office because it’s easily accessible. We don’t see just African-American clients. We help clients from every racial and ethnic group from throughout the South Side and south suburbs.

My inspiration, still a fixture at the business at 84 years old, my mother, still comes to volunteer three days a week.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I go to dinner with my husband of 46 years, Steven. I read and enjoy our home in West Pullman. I go to concerts. Gregory Porter is my new favorite. “Doc Martin” on PBS is my favorite new TV show. I spend time with my three grandchildren, ranging from 18 to 5. And, of course, I travel.

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