Ventura County employee retires
Behavioral Health worker started in '69
By Nancy Needham, Correspondent
April 2, 2005
Countless people, mostly children, have better lives because Mary Palmisano dedicated more than 35 years to improving their welfare.
In 1969, Palmisano showed up in a floral print skirt with her waist-length hair in a ponytail to begin working for the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department. Her hazel eyes were filled with excitement as she anticipated a career helping others.
"I've always wanted to help others, ever since I was a child," the Ventura resident said.
Palmisano retired from her duties with the county on March 24, eating a potluck with coworkers and packing up more than three decades of memories.
The mental health pioneer learned the philosophy of serving others and the practical application of nurturing those who need her from listening to and caring for her mother, she said. The late Edna Lonergan had tuberculosis, and Palmisano cared for her while running her own household and focusing on her education.
This dedication to caring for others while improving herself has continued throughout her life. Palmisano earned a bachelor's degree in nursing before going on to get a master's degree in marriage, family and child counseling.
The mother of eight children -- Joe, Dina, Marguerite, John, Gerard, Teresa, Leon and Michelle -- said she found time for a full-time career with the help of her husband, Joseph.
"He was a school teacher and the children's caretaker, tutor and coach," Palmisano said.
Her first job for the county was coordinating various groups to help people with mental health and addiction problems overcome challenges such as drug or alcohol addiction and depression.
For years she helped children individually or in group therapy who had major problems such as depression or anger issues. Much of what she did was listen and help them come up with solutions, she said, noting that it often required hours of playing while they talked. With younger children, Palmisano would often get out the Candyland or Shoots & Ladders board games. Sessions with older children often took place at the Ping-Pong table or on the basketball court.
"I get so mad. ..." "The other kids make fun of me. ..." "I can't make friends. ..." These were familiar phrases, but whatever the problem was, Palmisano was there to listen and assist.
"A lot of tragic things happen to children: parents die, families break up, drugs, parents using drugs," Palmisano recalled.
Those problems have stayed constant throughout the years. What has changed, though, is the age of the children coming in for help.
"We used to be focused on mostly teenagers. Now we are seeing problems much younger in children who are 4, 5 and 6," she said. "I think it's because of earlier detection, more awareness -- with TV and the Internet -- people are catching problems earlier and seeking help."
Over the years, Palmisano served in Adult Day Treatment, Children's Day Treatment, Children's Outpatient, Juvenile Justice, Disaster Team and other divisions in Behavioral Health. For the past 12 years the mental health and public health nurses helped children get care in the medical and mental health systems.
On her last day, Palmisano spent a lot of time trying to finish up, a task that could never really ever get done, she said. When she left that day, she was in a rush to get to choir practice at Sacred Heart Church in Saticoy.
Her hair was shorter than it was more than 35 years ago. She wore a floral skirt with a more conservative print, but her hazel eyes were still full of anticipation for the future.
Despite retiring, Palmisano won't be getting rusty with her Candyland, Shoots & Ladders or Ping-Pong skills. She has 20 grandchildren, and she knows how to keep them happy and busy. They love her to bake Mamie's Magic Muffins.
Being a child psychology professional comes in handy, she said. If she called them "healthy ingredient muffins" they wouldn't be so much fun to eat.