LEWISTON, Maine — Black Bear Support Services, a startup behavioral health company that helps children with developmental disabilities better cope with daily life, is adding services for adults to fuel its rapid expansion in Lewiston, Portland and Augusta.
The 4-year-old company, based in Lewiston, plans to add 50 more workers to its current staff of 90 by the end of this year and reach its revenue goal of $4 million in 2020. The company handles about 100 clients each month.
It provides rehabilitative and community services to help children and adolescents up to age 21 who have a developmental disability that affects their everyday functioning. That can include autism, Down syndrome, defiance disorder or intellectual disabilities.
It provides services under the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Section 28 program and is paid by MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid.
Owner Laura Catevenis knows firsthand how an extra challenge can affect life.
“Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2012 after a psychotic break, I had my daughter in 2014 and ended up on welfare,” Catevenis, now 28, wrote in her LinkedIn account. “I worked hard and stayed focused and reached my dream of owning a multimillion-dollar business.”
While on welfare, she consulted with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ ASPIRE program, which among other services helps people on food stamps find jobs.
“I was given the option of going back to school, working or operating a new business,” she said. “The counselor was steering me toward going back to school, but I had an associate degree. I wanted to focus on opening a million-dollar business.”
She earned an associate degree in human services from Central Maine Community College in 2010.
She said she remembers going to the ASPIRE office with her daughter on her hip wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt covered in infant spittle. It was not a formal interview, she said, and she was not going to be deterred from her dream of building her own company.
“My mother was self-employed, and I was always interested in business,” Catevenis said from her Lewiston office. “I have a lot of confidence. My parents never told me I couldn’t do something.”
She said the ASPIRE caseworker gave her a year to come up with a business plan, but she had her plan in place in less than six months.
She also received coaching from New Ventures Maine, a business and financial education program run under the University of Maine at Augusta and University of Maine System, to help start her business.
Office manager Rhonda Allen described Catevenis as a “force of nature” in overcoming her own problems to build a fast-growing company.
Black Bear works at the client’s home, focusing on goals and objectives around the child’s behavioral needs, she said. Visits can be as frequent as two to four hours, five days a week for six months. The caseworkers work out of the Black Bear offices, but spend most of their time with patients.
Patients learn to wash their hands after using the bathroom and how to attend the library properly, Allen said.
“If a child has trouble going to a Walmart because there are beeping noises or too many people, we’d do stories before the visit about the number of people in the store and possibly use noise-canceling headphones in the store,” Catevenis said.
Black Bear’s ability to attract and retain workers improved in the past couple years when the company began doing in-house training so its workers could earn the certificates. Catevenis said it is important for the caseworkers to feel confident that they can handle problems on their own while visiting patients.
Background checks still can take too long, about three to four weeks, Catevenis said. During that time, the company can lose potential employees it is trying to hire.
“People need a job in one to two weeks. We’re losing employees who can’t wait for the position,” Catevenis said.
Another challenge is the off-again, on-again support for Medicaid from both the state and federal governments.
Catevenis hopes to hedge against those problems by adding adult patients and new services in the coming years.
Most recently, President Donald Trump’s administration said it would not provide generous federal funding to partially expand state Medicaid programs.
And Maine saw several years of former Gov. Paul LePage stalling Medicaid expansion until current Gov. Janet Mills in January signed an order to expand Medicaid.
“Politics moves slow so that gives us a chance to figure out what to do,” Catevenis said.