JFK counselors-in-training help at-risk youth
By Lou Fancher
A grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama and Vice President Biden's "Now is the Time" plan is allowing John F. Kennedy University students in the counseling psychology program to complete fieldwork at school-based programs in the East Bay.
Addressing the mental health needs of youth -- before an incident, instead of in response to tragedy -- is a critical aspect of the program. Under the supervision of licensed professionals, the counselors-in-training are meeting one-on-one with students, referring families in need of help to JFK community centers in Concord, Sunnyvale, and Oakland, and assisting educators to develop relevant community workshops.
Along the way, the students earn hours required for licensing and gain real-world experience. The school staff identifies the students in need and with permission from their families, the free counseling is provided on-site.
"By providing highly supervised training, our next-generation counselors-in-training demonstrate their commitment, (and) the university's, to serve those most in need of receiving behavioral health care services," says Gail Kinsley-Dame, the executive director of JFK Community Counseling.
Pablo Navarrete-Martinez, 45, was poised to begin studying for an architecture degree from another university when he learned about the program at JFK. He came to the United States 20 years ago from Cancun, Mexico, and worked primarily in the service industry as he and his wife raised their three children.
"I was looking for a point of entrance into the mental health arena and applied to Hume, where we help intellectually disabled kids deal with their mental health problems," he says.
Hume Center is a mental health consultation training and research organization with multiple locations in the Bay Area.
"I jumped at the chance to attend JFK because it isn't just about getting a degree, it's about growing, about becoming a better you," he said.
Having suffered depression and receiving counseling in the past, Navarrete-Martinez says learning the roots of his problems opened him up to a different world. Working with students at West Lake Middle School and Bridges Elementary School in Oakland, his fluent Spanish is an asset.
Navarrete-Martinez and his fellow interns are from Mexico, Thailand, and Iran: their wide-ranging ethnicity and the role-playing games using nonverbal communication, including sign language, drawing and movement, are helping to establish trust as they deal with students' primary concerns.
"When there isn't a person who can translate, students feel lost. Or, there's lack of acceptance because of how they look. And there are cultural issues, like Muslim girls not feeling comfortable sitting with boys or expressing themselves. Latinos who have been in America for multiple generations form tight cliques that need to be broken up, but Asian students who've only been here for two months struggle to find their place."
Another counselor-in-training, William Dansby, grew up on a farm in Minnesota, "people watching" with his grandfather. The 38-year-old works as a waiter while he completes his master's degree.
He says self-esteem and impulse control are the main struggles for the students he sees on campuses in Central Contra Costa County.
"I model appropriate behavior and with the older clients, (I use) psycho-education regarding their nervous system and the "fight/flight" response model. Younger clients play Jenga, dominoes, 'Simon Says,' and other somatically oriented exercises."
Natalie Webster works as a community resource specialist at the Monument First 5 Center in Concord. At Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill she's using art interventions, including mask-making and sand play to assist students' self-exploration and build their self-esteem.
"I have always been drawn toward creative modes of healing," she says. "As an adolescent I struggled with depression and turned toward art and writing as an outlet."
After completing an undergraduate degree, Webster volunteered as a teaching assistant in children's art classes.
"I saw the capacity that play and art has on children. I decided to pursue counseling psychology with an expressive arts focus to work with children who have experienced trauma."
The counselors-in-training will conclude their work at the end of the school year in June, but Kinsley-Dame says the initiative to move beyond their clinic walls is "a vital part of the fabric of our communities" and the university remains committed to strengthening that bond "one youth, one family at a time."