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The Blue Door

Blue door of Hope. illustration of 3d image of light coming out open door

It’s funny how something small can become a symbol for something much bigger.

A great example of that is the blue door on a small house that came to represent a stigma-free, inclusive, casual community that offered comprehensive mental health care to students at the Ringling College of Art and Design.

The expansion of services and creation of the supportive atmosphere at the house with the blue door were thanks to Bob and Lee Peterson, Sarasota philanthropists and founders. 

Until the early 2000s, Sarasota’s Ringling College, like most other small, private colleges, had a one-person office providing mental health counseling and support to its students. People seeking counseling would do so in a very public way. 

That changed the day Lee and Bob Peterson came by with college President Larry Thompson, said Nancy Long, mental health counselor, who was director of the college mental health service for 30 years.

“When I explained the way things were, Lee’s eyes teared up,” Long said. “She wasn’t having it.”

The Petersons had given to many organizations but had devoted special passion to research into mental health. In 1987, they helped start the National Alliance of Research in Schizophrenia and Depression, now the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF). They would go on, in 2008, to establish Sunshine from Darkness, the Sarasota-based nonprofit dedicated to funding the BBRF and battling the stigma that shrouds the topic of mental illness, often keeping people from seeking treatment.

With the Petersons’ funding and Lee Peterson’s personal involvement, the small house on Greensboro Lane was transformed into a home for mental health services, with the emphasis on “home.” It had no reception desk, and the waiting area was like an open-concept living room and dining room. In other words, it was nothing like a doctor’s office.

The house was fully staffed, again, thanks to the Petersons. 

The location and casual, homelike atmosphere, including a large backyard, meant students could walk in and socialize as well as receive counseling. Long and the staff would have pizza lunches and backyard barbecues for 

students, staff and faculty, enabling important connections and a sense of community.

“The sweetness of that time and the uniqueness of that community really had everything to do with Bob and Lee Peterson.”

Perhaps the final touch establishing how ordinary mental health services were was the absence of a big sign hanging outside. They painted the door blue: people would just go to “the blue door” — which the center came to be known as — a symbol of acceptance and stigma-free assistance.

The center helped thousands of young people dealing with issues such as homesickness and relationship conflict, or depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, self-harm and schizophrenia. 

The work done in the house with the blue door and the legacy of the Petersons continue today with the Peterson Counseling Center at Ringling College and by the Petersons’ Sunshine from Darkness.

There was no electronic record keeping in the beginning of the center; what we do know, however, is that since 2010, the house with the blue door has served more than 28,000 students.

The Lee and Bob Peterson board has identified two initiatives that will enhance mental health wellness in our community moving forward. In the next few months, we will be announcing these initiatives.