Morning Zen

The Tampa Conference – Celebrating 32 Years of Excellence and the End of an Era

March 28, 2021

Greetings to all who have experienced the Tampa Conference!

I come to you with an announcement that includes a mixture of joy and pride, and admittedly, a tinge of sadness. After much reflection and conversation with Mario Hernandez, Chair of the Department of Child & Family Studies at the University of South Florida, we have decided to let the Annual Research & Policy Conference on Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Behavioral Health, affectionately known as “The Tampa Conference,” have a much-deserved rest.

I say “we” when, in reality, the conference is, and always was, the offspring of the Children’s Research and Policy Center founded by Robert Friedman, Krista Kutash, and Al Duchnowski. Together with Cindy Liberton and Dan Casella, these founders created the conference and implemented it for 20 successful years. For thirty-one years, this beautiful, epic event took place in Tampa, Florida, bringing together researchers, policymakers, family and youth advocates, all for the expressed purpose of highlighting innovations in research and policy focused on improving the lives of youth with mental health challenges and their families. The 32nd annual conference was canceled last year, days before the scheduled opening, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Though the 32nd conference didn’t occur, we were ready, and it was going to be brilliant!

Eleven years ago, Mario Hernandez asked me to take the lead in planning and conducting this conference. More important, Mario insisted that the Children’s Mental Health Network be a co-host and co-sponsor. That one act elevated the Network to a level of national prominence that we could not have imagined. A level of prominence that continues today.

There was more to my relationship with Mario than just a request to run a conference. A deep friendship developed, a love of brothers, with the ability to finish each other’s sentences, fearless in our collective imagination about what could be, what hadn’t been done before, and what we could do at this yearly gathering of the brightest minds in our field, to elevate, promote, and celebrate innovation—never losing focus on our collective mission to improve the lives of children and families.

The team Mario assembled at USF to assist with the conference rallied around me and grew to accept my quirky ways. There are so many who have been deeply involved in putting on this great conference, but I want to acknowledge the core group from USF that was involved in the thick of it, day and night (as was often the case), leading up what always turned out to be an epic event. Sandra Dwinell, Maricel Hernandez, Victor Trinidad, Dawn Khalil, Storie Miller, Nancy Burrus, Marty Kledzik, Bill Herstek, Lynn Clingan, Sonya Jones, and Taja Sumpter – thank you for your warm embrace and willingness to dive into the uncharted waters of innovation.

I’ll never forget my first meeting with the conference crew. I flew down to Tampa and showed up at the university wearing a suit. Tampa in the summer is freakin’ hot. And there I was, in suit and tie, sweatin’ like a stuck pig (as we like to say in these parts), thinking that was what I needed to do to make an impression, to be accepted. I know they thought, “What the heck has Mario brought us?” But they were so gracious, and we grew to be a tight, well-oiled machine. And I learned how to dress appropriately for Tampa weather!

As for the team on my side of things, we were small but mighty. The public face of the guy on stage who appeared to have it all together could not have done so without the fantastic behind-the-scenes efforts of my right-hand person, Pat Baker, founder of Utah Families as Allies, who was always at the ready. In the past few years, Pat and I added Tia Barnes from Youth ERA to ensure that the conference experience’s quality always exceeded 110 percent.

There are hundred’s more people who contributed to the success of this event. I decided to ditch the long list of names and stick with the core group for fear of inadvertently leaving someone out. For those of you who always showed up at the conference and asked the question, “What can I do to help?” (Microphone aficionado’s Denise Sulzbach and Brigitte Manteuffel come to mind), know that I see you in my mind’s eye and appreciate you for your commitment to making this conference the beacon of excellence that it grew to be.

I have had the distinct pleasure of being instrumental in the conceiving, planning, and running of two national conferences over the past thirty years – The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (in the early days of its existence) and the Tampa conference. Here is what I know about planning and executing a successful conference.

You can follow templates, meeting planner guides and put on a clean, neat, and tidy conference.

Or, you can take a heart and passion approach, which is messy, mistake-prone, and infinitely more time-consuming, but unfailingly touches the hearts and souls of the dedicated individuals who attend.

I chose and would encourage anyone thinking of hosting a national gathering to use the heart and passion approach. I got into the business of planning conferences out of necessity. In 1991, the Federation was a small but mighty advocacy organization with little money. In those days, Board members volunteered their time to put on the conference, and the focus was on heart and passion. That’s all we knew.

I carried that spirit with me to the Tampa conference. And, with immense credit to Mario Hernandez, he not only embraced the heart and passion approach, but he also doubled down on evolving the conference to be responsive and adaptive to the needs of the rapidly changing research and policy community by taking an inclusive approach with the content design for the conference each year. Mario insisted on involving the research community in designing the conference’s focus each year. Expert teams would review submissions and drive the approval of the final agenda.

Having teams of leaders in behavioral health design tracks of study, be directly involved in accepting proposals, and ultimately having significant involvement in developing the final agenda created true ownership. Yes, it would be Mario and me on the stage at the opening of the conference. But the pulse of the conference, as it would progress through keynotes, plenaries, and workshops, reflected the pulse of the community in attendance.

And when you do that, there is nothing more vital, more meaningful, or profound. And my brother, Mario Hernandez, deserves 100% credit for making that happen. That one significant act of inclusion changed the conference forever.

I hope that those who choose to pick up where the Tampa Conference has left off will consider embracing heart, passion, and inclusion. If you can do that, you will be most successful.

My heart is full of gratitude for the abundance of gifts this conference has given me – in friendships, delight in seeing hard-working individuals in behavioral health discover innovations, and in being a part of strengthening the fabric so crucial to better serving the needs of children and youth with behavioral challenges and their families.

I celebrate the Tampa Conference, and I rejoice in having been a small part of it.

I celebrate what will come next and can’t wait to see what innovations emerge.

To those whose lives I have had the privilege to engage as a result of the Tampa Conference, I say thank you. I am better for having known you.

To Mario, I say, much love, my brother. It was one hell of a ride! And much love as well to my fellow Tampa Conference devotees!


Share your thoughts and remembrances!

If you would like to share your thoughts about the Tampa Conference, please click the link below and let us know. We will update this page with your contributions as they come in. Pictures celebrating moments in time are encouraged!

  • Share your reflections here.
  • Have pictures from past conferences you would like to share? Send them on!


Evelyn Frankford ~ Wonderful message, Scott. Such a great conference. I always looked forward to going to Tampa and seeing so many people and learning so much. I do understand why you and Mario have made the decision you did. Not just that some of us have gotten older and have joints that ache but also we don’t know what the world will be like on the other side of this pandemic. I have been privileged to be working with a school district on making special education more responsive to “our” youth and young adults. So hopefully, there will be forums for us to continue to exchange our learnings. All best wishes, Evelyn

Vicki Malone Waytowich ~ Scott, this was one of my favorite behavioral health conferences and one that fostered the beginning of my relationships with notable and “notorious” System of Care folks :). Along with Gary Blau, Jim Wotring and Team Mario I have learned immensely from this gathering that brought together these behavioral health gurus and welcomed me into the SOC family and connected us Florida folks more cohesively. Will miss this!

Alice Preble ~ This was always my favorite conference!

Brianne Masselli ~ This was by far my favorite conference. This makes me sad!

Joy Cunningham ~ Scott like you said it was a hell of a ride. Last year, Pat Baker and I were to meet up with you for a reunion then COVID hit. Guess we will have to figure something else out. Much love!!!

Patti Derr ~ The conference, the friends for Life, Sunsets, Oyster Catchers, Ybor City…the information beyond compare, the experience based learning regarding family and youth attendance….. THE FRIENDS…

Brigitte Manteuffel ~ Thank you for the shout out, Scott. I will miss this anchor of annual reunions and friendships and new learnings. I know so many people looked forward to this chance for reunion. You and the team put on a great show, with quite a run! PS – I’m always game to figure out what’s next, and can I can offer encouragement that there IS a way! I took part in a pretty impressive online version of a conference a few weeks ago An interim step and not like being there, but there is still an urgency to exchange ideas with people who know the same issues and language.

Chris Stormann ~ So many, many, many great memories. Will miss seeing everyone and catching up every year. What an amazing run though and phenomenal production you all pulled together. I was fortunate to be a regular over the last 15 years.

Michael Owen ~ Good work for a long time.

COL-Ret George D. Patrin, MD, MHA ~ Scott, Congrats on a job well done. I almost made it to the conf a couple times, but just not in the cards. Having put on conferences, I know it’s very difficult to “let it rest.” You pulled together all the elements every year so people could hear and dance to the music. I greatly respect your passion and drive in service to children’s mental health and all of us who strive to improve it.

Kathleen Ferreira ~ Scott Bryant-Comstock – I know this conference will be sorely missed but I also have firsthand knowledge of what it takes to carry out a conference of this magnitude. Some of my best memories at USF were tied to this conference.

Marlene Richter Penn ~ Ongoing attendance at this conference was the most gratifying immersion in learning and sharing. Participation fostered the feeling that one was a part of a creative caring community. Thank you Mario, Scott and all others mentioned.

Patti Derr ~ Sadly, online conferences can never replace the wonderful memories of human relationships. The hallway interactions, the answer to a specific question, that experience of happenstance…The relationships spanning a lifetime. I love you all and cherish the memories and learning opportunities that have guided decisions that impact the lives of children, their families and the decision makers seeking better outcomes for us all.

Norin Dollard ~ Seconds to all that has been said here. So many memories, so much knowledge, so many friends. It will be missed a lot.

Debra Mowery ~ I am reading this morning with a very heavy heart about the end of the Tampa conference. I grew up personally and professionally attending this conference each year. It was like old home week where you were able to reconnect with friends and family. But always with the hope that you would make at least one new connection during this event. The years of being a host or a proctor. And then becoming a reviewer for the poster/paper submissions. Being a presenter. Being an observer. And to have my connection with you both  develop into an opportunity for students to continue to learn about children’s mental and behavioral health. The word thank you just is not enough. But it is what I have for you both. THANK-YOU!

Dee Bigfoot ~ Good morning Scott, I have images in my head about conversations you had with Mario and others about the status of the Tampa Conference.  The conference is one of the best and I know the decision to discontinue was not made lightly. The legacy of the conference and your contribution will continue in threads of on-going research with children’s mental health.  You are greatly appreciated, as well as are your Friday updates. May you be blessed with renewed spirit and uplifting energy going forward.

Sandra Dwinell ~ Wow. It is the end of an era, for sure. I am so sad to read this and yet I completely understand. In my 17 years now at USF, I have gone from being an observer on the sidelines of what it took to put on the massive undertaking of this conference, to slowly coming into greater levels of contribution in the organization & coordination of it. Like the others here, I have such great memories of being a part of this – even through the challenges and exhaustion that are a normal part of putting on an event of this size (oh, my aching feet!). It was an honor to be a part of it all and watch the conference become what it was at the end – a Gold Standard and example for others to follow. While it’s sad to see the conference coming to an end, I truly believe that it has and will continue to pave the way for something that will be just as powerful and impactful for the field. Best of luck and good health to all involved!

Denise Cave ~ Thank you  Scott Bryant-Comstock, Mario Hernandez, and the entire USF team for a fabulous run and for launching my career as the “mic girl” (and to Brigitte for her mentorship). The “Tampa Conference” was always the place where colleagues became life-long friends while learning, laughing, and making big plans for making huge advancements in children’s behavior health! Special thanks to Storie for always having scissors to cut store tags off of my clothes and extra packing tape for those gigantic TA Network displays, and to Pat – my year was always complete when I got to catch up with you (especially the year you gave me those lovely bath salts that caused airport security to launch an invasion suitcase search!). Scotty Boy – just let me know the next time you need a voice in the back of the room to announce your entry on stage – I will always have your back (and be your voice)!

Daniel Dawes ~ This was my favorite conference hosted by my favorite people! I will miss this event very much, but more importantly I will miss not getting to see you and Mario every Spring. Thank you both for allowing us this forum to elevate behavioral health equity! Love you both very much.

Tracy Pellegrino ~ So many memories and lessons learned at the Tampa Conference! It was my favorite place to catch up with like minded warriors!

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About the Author

Scott Bryant-Comstock

Hello, I’m Scott Bryant-Comstock, CEO and founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network. For the past 40 years, my journey as a mental health advocate has traveled from volunteering at a suicide and crisis center, professional roles as a therapist in an outpatient clinic, in-home family therapist, state mental health official, Board Chair for a county mental health program, and national reviewer of children’s mental health systems reform efforts. As the founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network, I lead the Network’s efforts to grow a national online forum to exchange ideas on how to improve children’s mental health research, policy, and practice.

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