From Humble Beginnings: Celebrating 50 Years of Cummins Behavioral Health Systems

Feb. 21, 2023


In 2022, Cummins Behavioral Health Systems celebrated a major milestone: our organization has now been open and serving central Indiana for 50 years. For half a century, we have been advocating for mental health and wellness in our communities, pursuing clinical best practices in all our areas of care, and helping the individuals we serve experience the hope of recovery.

As we pass this special anniversary and look ahead to the next 50 years of Cummins, we’d also like to look back at how our organization began. Although it now spans five counties and includes hundreds of talented mental health professionals, it started with just a handful of passionate individuals determined to change their communities for the better.

One of these individuals was Thelma Cummins, who played an important role in the early days of the organization, and after whom it was named. The Cummins family has continued to be involved in the organization even after Thelma’s death, with her daughter, Mary Cummins, and Mary’s son, Pete Lynch, both serving on the Board of Directors. With almost 30 years of Board membership between them, Mary and Pete have watched our organization grow and go through many periods of change over the years.

In honor of our 50th anniversary, we sat down with Mary Cummins and Pete Lynch to learn more about the early days of our organization. In this blog post, they share the story of how Cummins began, the people who made their vision a reality, and the enduring legacy of Thelma Cummins.

Pete Lynch, Board Member for Cummins Behavioral Health and grandson of Thelma Cummins (Not pictured: Mary Cummins)
Pete Lynch, Board Member for Cummins Behavioral Health and grandson of Thelma Cummins (Not pictured: Mary Cummins)

The Beginnings of Community Mental Health Care in Indiana

The story of Cummins Behavioral Health Systems begins back in 1963, when the United States Congress and President John F. Kennedy passed the Community Mental Health Act (CMHA). Intended to reduce the number of individuals institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, the CMHA instructed each of the 50 states to develop mental health centers that could provide care to persons in need without removing them from their communities.

Accordingly, Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh signed a new state law the following year, establishing a commission to develop comprehensive plans for mental health services in the state. “At some point, the Indiana legislature passed a law that developed what were called catchment areas, and Hendricks and Putnam Counties were two of the catchment areas,” Mary explains.

For a time, the two counties worked toward their goals independently. Led by small groups of passionate community members, each county formed a local Mental Health Association and set to work securing the personnel and funding they would need to open a dedicated clinic. However, it would only be a matter of time before the two counties joined together in their efforts.

“Ultimately, it came down to a group of people that saw a need that was not being met at a time where behavioral health was not a very popular thing to be talking about,” Pete says. “And I think one of the things that was strongest about that group was: they knew they weren’t experts, but they were doers. They were people that could align to get things done and put in order, and they just tried to do what they felt was right for the community and for people that they thought needed to be served in better ways.”

Laying the Foundation for Cummins Behavioral Health

However, there were a number of developments and changes that occurred before Cummins as we know it was born.

In 1970, Putnam County MHA, under the leadership of one Bessie Rector, succeeded in opening the county’s first mental health outpatient clinic. This clinic was only open four hours a week and staffed by the minimum personnel required by the state: a social worker, a psychiatrist, and a clinical psychologist. However, it was forced to close after only a few weeks of operation when two of the staff members moved to new jobs outside of the community.

Following this setback, the committee members reached out to the other counties in the catchment area to see if they were interested in pooling resources. The Hendricks County MHA responded enthusiastically, and Thelma Cummins was put in charge of developing plans alongside Putnam County. For the following year and a half, the joint committees held monthly planning sessions for the project, with initial sessions being held in Thelma Cummins’ home.

Mary comments, “That was the juncture that I remember most about, when they initially met in my mom’s living room. When it got to trying to open a clinic, this group was very active at that point, and they worked with the state legislature to get that stuff done.”

In addition to Thelma Cummins and Bessie Rector, other members of the group included Richard Kelly, Rex Rector, Gertrude Norman, Dr. James Johnson, Dr. Joseph Kerlin, Pat Skillman, Jack Hobbs, and David Houck.

“Thelma was not an expert at any of that, and no people in that group were experts at that,” Pete reiterates. But they did the research, they found out what needed to happen, and they got with the right resources, and really just held a lot of people accountable. They were just kind of pushing for what ended up becoming Cummins.”

The Birth of Cummins

There were still a few more hurdles to surmount before Cummins’ official birth as an organization.

Despite extensive planning between the Hendricks and Putnam County MHAs, the opening of a joint clinic was delayed due to funding difficulties. “Putnam County actually started behind Hendricks County because of some tax levies that Hendricks County was able to get passed slightly before,” Pete explains. As a result, Hendricks County MHA opened its first clinic inside the Hendricks County Hospital, with 3–4 professionals providing counseling for 20 hours a week in designated rooms. Putnam County MHA, unable to open a clinic of its own, instead secured temporary counseling services for the county from an Indianapolis-based agency.

In January of 1974, Thelma Cummins, who was currently serving as president of the Hendricks County clinic, re-introduced the idea of a joint Hendricks-Putnam County clinic. With the necessary funding now acquired, Putnam County MHA agreed, and discussions began in earnest.

Sadly, Thelma Cummins passed away from illness only a short time later, bringing to a close her 20 years of volunteer service toward mental health projects. The work toward opening a joint clinic continued in her absence.

When the Hendricks and Putnam County committees once again convened to solidify their plans, Bessie Rector suggested the new clinic be named after Thelma, in recognition of her determination and dedication to the project. With the rest of the Board in agreement, Cummins Mental Health Clinic finally opened its doors in Danville in August of 1974. Just a few months later, a new location would be opened in Greencastle, and by 1979, Cummins Mental Health Clinic would be officially upgraded to a certified Community Mental Health Center.

Thelma Cummins may have been gone, but Cummins Behavioral Health was alive and well.

Thelma Cummins’ Legacy

Cummins Behavioral Health has gone though many changes since those early days, from the addition of new locations and service lines to its recent designation as a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic for Hendricks County. But Mary and Pete agree that its guiding principles can still be traced back to the small group of passionate individuals who started it.

“It was progressive for that group to take on [this issue],” Pete says. “At that time, you had very few choices [for mental health care], and this group of people really wanted to expand that and provide for members of our community that they knew needed help but did not need to be removed from the community.”

The two agree that Thelma Cummins will always have a special legacy at our organization. Her leadership during those formative years helped make Cummins Behavioral Health into what it is today. “She just was a doer. If something needed to be done, she thought maybe she could add something to it,” Mary says.

At the same time, they also agree that Thelma herself would have downplayed her own contributions, pointing instead to the other passionate and talented people who worked alongside her during that time.

“Cummins is named after Thelma.” Pete comments. “She certainly was instrumental in what happened in the organization, but it could be named after any number of people. The fact that it was named after Thelma is a tremendous honor for our family. But at some point, some time, we’re going to have to talk to her again, and we’re going to have to make sure that we’re clear how we’ve represented this. I think she would be incredibly honored, but I think it would be very important for her to honor the commitment and the involvement of everyone else that was a part of that. That was huge for her.”

One other thing is certain. In spite of all of Thelma’s vision for the organization that would one day bear her name, she could not have imagined just how much it would grow over the course of 50 years.

“This is all just to speculate, but I don’t know that Thelma would have ever envisioned Cummins as it is today,” Pete says. “I think she would’ve had the foresight to say, ‘I know things will change and evolve.’ But to know what Cummins is today, from the size of the organization, to the number of patients or the number of employees…I think she would be surprised.”

“Yeah. And pleased,” Mary adds.

“Yes,” Pete rejoins. “Surprised and pleased.”

Thelma Cummins
Thelma Cummins

Thank You

In addition to Thelma Cummins and the other founding members of our organization, we would like to thank every single one of our employees, patients, and community members who have believed in Cummins over the years and helped to make it a beacon of hope and recovery in central Indiana. We could not have reached where we are today without your hard work, support, and trust.

It has been a remarkable and inspiring first 50 years for Cummins Behavioral Health Systems. Here’s hoping the next 50 prove just as monumental for the people we serve!