Reflections from an Original Clinician on Ellie’s Evolution
Welcome to a brand new series we’re calling “The Heart of Ellie.” As Ellie grows and evolves, we stay grounded in the values and spirit that define us. That’s why we’re chatting with some of our early employees, asking them to help us understand and put words to the magic of Ellie. We’re going to be sharing those conversations with you as a way of honoring and preserving the Heart of Ellie.
Erin Opoku’s introduction to Ellie Mental Health went a little something like this:
“I went to grad school with Erin Pash (Ellie’s founder),” Erin O. explained. “And if you’ve met Erin, as soon as she has a vision in mind, she goes and she’s running for it. I love that.”
It wasn’t long before Erin O joined Ellie as one of its first five clinicians, becoming a part of the small, spunky squad that made up Ellie’s roots- a squad that felt different from any workplace Erin had been in before. Even in those early days, Ellie’s values of authenticity and acceptance rang true.
“The times that we weren’t in session with clients, we were pretty close knit- we were all very authentic, human, and accepting the differences between us.”
“I knew that all the colleagues that I had around me respected me, cared for me, knew bits and pieces of my life of what was going on,” Erin recalls. “They were really a work family.”
Erin fondly remembers how one of Ellie’s core values – humor – seeped into even the most mundane of their daily operations. “We would cry-laugh in the middle of team meetings,” she said, chuckling at the memory. “There’s not a lot of that normally happening in big corporate business.”
Humor, Erin argues, is a survival tool of sorts for therapists, a unique quirk nurtured by the sometimes heavy nature of their work. “Therapists have very unique senses of humor because of what we hear on a day-to-day basis. We have to embrace that in order to get through some of the hard stuff that we hear.”
Humor wasn’t the only thing that made being a part of Ellie’s mission so compelling to Erin. They were also deeply determined to break the stigma surrounding mental health in their community.
“It was like, ‘Let’s talk about mental health. Let’s get it out there. Let’s make it a thing that doesn’t have shame behind it,’” Erin reflected.
Erin eventually became a clinic director at Ellie’s Mendota Heights location, and it was there that the impact of what Ellie was doing really hit her.
“I think about the moment that I became a clinic director. I was meeting my new team, and I was sitting in a room of brand new therapists that were gonna be my humans to oversee.
In that moment, I was able to recognize how diverse and beautiful and knowledgeable that team was- to go, “We’re gonna be able to really touch this community.” Being able to see those therapists start to collaborate, start to talk about how they can support each other in their own practice was that moment for me to go, “Wow, we’re doing it.”
Keeping Ellie’s culture firmly intact has always been a priority for Erin, one that she takes seriously when considering new team members. “Even now in leadership, when I’m hiring and looking for other clinic directors to lead other groups of therapists, that’s what I look for,” Erin shared, “Like, ‘how do you embody these pieces of how we built Ellie? Because I know that if you can identify those within yourself, you’ll find a good fit here.”
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And when it comes to the growth happening at Ellie, Erin feels it was inevitable.
“I think I go back to what our mission really is- making sure that great services are obtainable by anyone that needs it,” she shared. “That means we continue creating locations that are accessible. Making sure that we have therapists that are diverse and understand equity and inclusion. Making sure that we hire therapists who know their community, understand their community, and know the resources in their community.
I love that we’ve been able to connect with other communities out there and with business owners that have as strong of a passion to support their community- in a sense, I don’t feel like the mission has really ever changed.
For us to be able to find like-minded, passionate humans in those communities- it’s a no-brainer, right? That is the move that we needed to make. “
Looking ahead, Erin addresses a concern that some have expressed, a worry that Ellie might be “selling out” or “losing their way.” The heart of this concern often comes from a place of fear that Ellie’s growth could dilute the special culture and clinician-first priorities that make Ellie unique. While Erin understands and validates those worries, she pushes back on them, too.
The introduction of franchising, Erin argues, isn’t a deviation from core values but a way to live them out more fully.
“In graduate school, many of us were led to believe that private practice was the only ‘right’ way. But the reality is, there’s an array of practices and avenues we can utilize with our master’s degree. By adopting a franchise model, we’re able to maintain the benefits of private practice while taking advantage of the expanded impact of a larger organization,” Erin explains. “Ellie lives in this ‘gray’ area.”
As Erin Opoku sees it, the “Heart of Ellie” has remained consistent from its early days throughout its evolution. The organization’s mission, core values, and commitment to breaking down barriers in mental health care have guided its journey — and will continue to light the path ahead. Despite the changes and growth, the heart of Ellie beats as strong as ever, and its spirit remains unbroken.