Mason Counselors Without Borders Reach Out to California Wildfire Victims

Posted: November 28, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jennifer Edgerly

In the wake of the California wildfires that burned more than 500,000 acres in October and November, many families and communities were faced with significant loss. While financial support poured in, many people still needed a shoulder to lean on.

Counselors Without Borders, a program begun at Mason following Hurricane Katrina, is the nation’s first counseling program that includes graduate students training to be counselors or psychologists under the supervision of licensed professionals. The program is endorsed and supported by three major counseling associations both nationally and internationally.

Counselors Without Borders sent a team of counselors to California in early November for a week to support and counsel communities that often feel neglected by most mainstream relief agencies.

“The aftermath of the wildfires and how they have affected the communities is profound,” says Fred Bemak, professor of counseling and development and director of the Diversity Research and Action Center in the College of Education and Human Development.

“There was significant need in the lower-income communities, which are primarily Hispanic and Native American. There are few services available to them and even fewer culturally responsive services.”

Shortly after the fires began, San Diego State University contacted Bemak and asked if he could send a group from Counselors Without Borders to the area to meet and talk with culturally diverse groups that had been affected by the fires.

The team, consisting of Bemak, Mason professor Rita Chi-Ying Chung, eight graduate students and one alumnus of the program, arrived in San Diego on Nov. 3. The team immediately met up with their counterparts from San Diego State University for intense training and orientation.

During the week, the counselors worked 15-hour days and met with more than 1,247 people. They focused on communities where the team could be the most effective. These included two American Indian reservations, one American Indian charter school, various public schools throughout San Diego, migrant communities, Head Start programs and other low-income, culturally diverse communities. Each night the group would gather for a two-to-three-hour debriefing of the day’s activities.

Counselors Without Borders in California
Counselors Without Borders, including students from Mason and San Diego State University, provided support to California wildfire victims. Mason professors Fred Bemak, front row, far right, and Rita Chi-Ying Chung, front row, second from left, led the Mason students.
Photo courtesy of Fred Bemak

“When we arrived at one of the American Indian reservations, counseling at another relief center was already set up,” says Bemak. “However, nobody from the reservation was coming to them and utilizing their resources. We had permission from the tribal council to walk around the reservation and meet people on their own ground. By making ourselves available to them and initiating conversations, people were more willing to open up, share their experiences and talk about their loss.”

Counselors Without Borders defines itself as a multilingual, culturally diverse and culturally sensitive team that separates itself from other organizations by offering counseling and stress support. By defining their services as “stress support” rather than “mental health support” the team finds they are better received and there is less of a stigma about the counseling and support they are providing.

“I believe people were open to talking to me because I did not have a hidden agenda,” says student Tora Henry. “My main purpose was to acknowledge and validate their experiences, to be open to their hurt and pain and to show true care and concern for their past, present and future state.”

Fellow student Diana Ortiz agrees, saying, “By being genuine and listening to those we met, we were able to promote a sense of connectedness and community that ultimately will help these communities to support each other through these difficult situations.”

Bemak recalls attending a meeting of administrators for the San Diego migrant education program to provide support and a debriefing for them. “Half of the people in the room were crying. The majority of the people we saw were trying to take care of others while also trying to cope themselves with what they either witnessed or lost. Many people just needed to be asked how they were doing, and the conversation would flow from there.”

Even with the long days and emotionally taxing counseling sessions, the students were grateful for the experience.

“I challenged myself, and I confronted my own experiences,” says Ortiz. “I learned from others, I tried to be the best I could be. I learned to listen to what was behind the words and to ask instead of assume. This experience has impacted me at different levels. Personally and professionally I grew.”

“This experience has been life changing and will be long lasting,” Henry agrees. “It allowed me to see firsthand what it truly means to advocate for someone. Counselors have a tremendous job in helping others with their pain.”

Bemak says he is proud of his team and what they accomplished.

“This experience isn’t just about providing an opportunity for our students. We are there to reach out to the community and help them find their way, and the graduate students did an amazing job of helping so many people. Their hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the people they helped, either. So many people that we worked with expressed their appreciation. They couldn’t believe that we travelled all the way from Virginia to help them out.”

Other counseling and development students who went to San Diego are Taryn Weisbrod, Mark Reedy, Paola Sandoval-Perez, Saara Amri, Fatima Mekki and David Norman. Alumnus Melissa Keylor also went with the group.

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