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Denver's 'Little Purple Van' brings mental health help where it’s needed most

With half of Denver residents saying their mental health declined during the pandemic, a converted Winnebago could be the answer.
Wellness Winnie
Posted at 2:52 PM, Apr 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-12 21:23:19-04

DENVER — The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our minds. Half of all Denver residents say their mental health has declined in recent years. Yet one in six can’t get treatment when they need it, according to the latest Colorado Health Access Survey.

But a Denver program is trying to change that by bringing help directly to those in need.

The Wellness Winnie is Denver’s mobile mental health unit. It operates out of a converted miniature Winnebago.

The RV follows a scheduled route that takes it to seven locations on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The Wellness Winnie parks outside of libraries and partners with nonprofits to bring a wide variety of services to neighborhoods that may not otherwise have access.

Since Denver launched the Wellness Winnie almost four years ago, the unit has helped thousands of people, according to the city. The mobile unit is one part of the city’s broader Empower Denver plan created by the Denver Department of Public Health and the Environment to improve access to behavioral health services.

The RV is stocked with everyday essentials like food and water, as well as staff trained to connect people with everything from mental health counseling to drug addiction help and even booking appointments with government agencies like the DMV.

Shawna Darling, who runs the Wellness Winnie, learned how to do her job through life experiences of her own.

“I’m able to give back what I was given,” Darling said.

She experienced methamphetamine addiction for more than a decade, then she got treatment through a Denver-run program.

"I've utilized the system and know how it works. And so, I can help folks walk through it and be a support to them,” she said.

Darling started working with the Wellness Winnie when Denver first launched it in March 2020. The pandemic temporarily stalled its operations, and the RV was used instead to distribute COVID-19 tests. In August 2020, the Winnie was redeployed on its intended mission to treat substance misuse and mental health conditions.

Darling said the Wellness Winnie staff have built relationships and developed trust with clients over time. About 20% to 35% of the people they help come back each week to keep moving towards their goals, she said. Denver7 met up with the Wellness Winnie on a Tuesday morning, when it set up outside of the nonprofit Struggle of Love.

Ashley Smith, who runs Struggle of Love’s youth mental health services, said the collaboration between her group and the Wellness Winnie has been an unexpected but welcome surprise for those looking for help.

“They're shocked, first of all, because it's a little purple van and they're like, ‘What? That's so funny.’ But they're really excited," Smith said. “Sometimes people don't have transportation to go to a certain place. So, the fact that something that they need is coming to them is impactful.”

The Wellness Winnie is part of the city’s broader Empower Denver plan created by the Denver Department of Public Health and the Environment to improve access to behavioral health services.

Denver is planning to get a second, larger RV that will have therapists and medical experts on board. It’s expected to hit the streets by the end of the year. The city intends to spend $470,000 of federal aid provided through the American Rescue Plan Act to buy the new RV.

The Wellness Winnie currently stops here:

Ross-Broadway Branch Library
33 E. Bayaud Ave, Denver CO 80209
Every First and Third Thursday of the month
12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Hadley Library
1890 S. Grove St.
Every Second and Fourth Thursday of each month
12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Heart and Hand Center
2758 Welton St.
First Wednesday of each month
2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Moline Apartments
11650 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Third Wednesday of each month
1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Street Fraternity
8720 E. Colfax Ave. (back parking lot)
Every Thursday
9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Every Tuesday of of each month
3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Struggle of Love Foundation
12000 E 47th Ave.
Every Tuesday of each month
11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Woodbury Library
3265 Federal Blvd.
Every Second and Fourth Wednesday of each month 
12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.

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