Peterson's pride: Leaving behind Ten, not 10

You've seen the green awnings, but you don't have the faintest clue what goes on inside. For many people, Region Ten flies under the radar– but its executive director, Jim Peterson, doesn't seem to mind.

Peterson sums up Region Ten's mission in 10 words or less: "We serve persons with major disabilities."

That means offering treatment for mental illness, mental retardation, and "substance use disorders"Рthe newest terminology for the now pass̩ "substance abuse."

After 30 years at Region Ten, Peterson is retiring at the end of September. He reminisces about the good old days of social work, when the money flowed in LBJ's Great Society. He got a grant to do a community evaluation on poverty in Seattle. "The study even paid the respondents," he marvels. "Jobs were everywhere."

When he came to Charlottesville in 1968, "We couldn't believe the housing conditions one block from City Hall," Peterson says, referring to a now-demolished community on Garrett Street, which allegedly had outdoor privies and homes with no running water. "It was slum housing."

He organized what is now the Charlottesville Housing Foundation to provide housing for low and moderate income families– one of the many community pies Peterson has had his finger in. "Those were wonderful days," he smiles, describing how volunteers and churches came together to do something to improve conditions.

Peterson has seen a lot of change in mental health since the '60s. "Before, Virginia had 15,000 people in state institutions. The preponderance of mentally ill in the state were institutionalized for life. Now, we try to treat them in their homes and communities." The number of those in state institutions has dropped to 1,500– and those are short-termers, not lifers.

The biggest change in treatment? Definitely the meds. "Before 1950, there were no psychotropic drugs at all," he says. So if you were hallucinating, you went into an institution. Early drugs came with irreversible side effects, such as uncontrollable shaking.

"The drugs of the past 10 years are highly targeted," he says. "They don't hammer the person."

Housed in a former bank, Region Ten handles 5,000 clients a year for Charlottesville and surrounding counties, with a paid staff of 500. "Think of it as a hospital without walls," he suggests.

In Charlottesville, the most common mental illness is schizophrenia, says Peterson. The most common misperception about mental illness? "People are worried about violence," he says. "We've never had a problem in our group homes or apartments."

Peterson bristles when people refer to Region Ten as just another social services agency. "Nothing presses my button more than when people say we're a 'quasi-government' agency. We are an agency of local government."

That doesn't preclude fund raising, such as this weekend's 11th Softball Extravaganza pitting Democrats against Republicans and local media battling among themselves. Peterson will not be playing– "You could get hurt–" but will be there sweating it out with everyone else.

Where did the name Region Ten come from? Peterson explains it's a shortened version of the original government nomenclature from back when the county was in "planning district ten."

He had better luck transportation-wise, coming up with the snappy name JAUNT. But he insists on one thing: "We are Ten. Not 10, not X."

Age: 61

What brought you here? '55 Volkswagen with neat-o side flip-up turn signals... and a clinical appointment in pediatrics.

What's worst about living here? Unnecessary traffic congestion

Favorite hangout? I hope to find out after I retire.

Most overrated virtue? Humility– except in, say, Texas

What would people be surprised to know about you? I'm actually a very neat, orderly person.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Effectuate the fact that I'm actually a very neat, orderly person.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? My contributions to the improvement of housing and human services

What do people find most annoying about you? I'm always right.

Whom do you admire? Franklin Bacon

Favorite book? Of Human Bondage

 What subject causes you to rant? Charlottesville's traffic lights

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Computers and the Internet

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The United States was positioned to see a thousand-year peace, but I fear we've lost the high ground.

What do you drive? '66 Mustang convertible... and a Camry

What's in your car CD player right now? What CD player?

What's your next journey? China

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Pass

What do you regret? Not pursuing music after high school

Favorite comfort food? Sausage, eggs, and cheese

What's always in your refrigerator? Sausage, eggs, and cheese

Must-see TV? News

Favorite cartoon? Roadrunner

Describe a perfect day. A hot, low humidity day at the beach with all the family

Walter Mitty fantasy? To reduce environmental pollution and eliminate the dependence on foreign oil by setting the traffic lights on blinking except during peak hours

Who'd play you in the movie? Dan Aykroyd

Most embarrassing moment? Having the transmission go out while on the way to a Halloween party dressed as the Fruit-of-the-Loom grapes

Best advice you ever got? Everyone gets their time in the barrel. It will pass.

Favorite bumper sticker? I'm spending my kids' inheritance.

Jim Peterson