Diversity Career Stories Healthcare

Counselor escapes batterer, founds organization to help others

After nearly becoming a battered woman herself, this brave professional began volunteering for a crisis center hotline, and then pursued a degree in counseling. After 12 years of experience as a licensed counselor, she is taking risks and forming her own non-profit organization to help others.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My job title is Director of a 501c3 nonprofit that I founded where I am also the counseling coordinator. I have a total of 18 years counseling experience. I have held a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology for the past 12 years. Some of the jobs I have had were working as a clinician in a county mental health crisis unit, clinical coordinator for a residential treatment program, and a college instructor teaching human services courses. I finally have started my own business in the field.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
I often act as a telephone counselor, advocate and resource provider to my clients. Typically clients contact me who are experiencing a traumatic event and feel hopeless about their situations, or believe they are being unjustly treated by their families and the bureaucracy in some capacity. Patience is key to discern where I can help. I always take notes and ask them questions. Part of the job is making caring suggestions to help my clients obtain their needs, goals and understand their own situations so that they may make better decisions. Someone recently wrote a letter about my organization and I had to type a letter back, at no cost to the client. Obtaining answers on their behalves is key; finding resources to contact is part of my job. Creating web contacts such as websites, writing groups online and newsletters keeps the ball rolling. I’m in the process of writing grants.

What is your ethnicity? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?
I am Caucasian. As a female who obtained my M.A. degree later in life (in my 40’s) I have worked hard, been reliable, yet have never broken through the glass ceiling into management until I founded a nonprofit. I have experienced discrimination in pay in a job as Clinician in a psychiatric hospital. When I was offered the position over the phone at a certain rate of pay ($18/hour), I accepted. When I got my first paycheck I had only been paid $13/hour.

First I went to a few of my coworkers who held the same job position. My Caucasian male coworker told me he was hired in at $20/hour and I should not take less. My female coworker who was African American told me she was also hired at $18/hour and that they wound up paying her only $13/hour, like me. Her reason for accepting the discrepancy was that she “needed the job” and so she didn’t fight the pay arrangement.

When I went in to the HR department the lady who I accepted the job offer from denied the pay that she told me I would receive. I had not asked for a written offer. It was her word against mine. I was new on the job and no one wanted to fight this with me.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
I did try and open a complaint with the Fair Employment and Housing Department and the employer did not show up. They then made another appointment with me but due to my living some distance away I was unable to make the second appointment. Going to coworkers to check whether I was the only one who experienced this pay discrimination was the best thing I could have done first because I got their support and heard another story like mine.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?
We are totally equal opportunity in that we would hire anyone with a desire to work in our organization. I founded the nonprofit and so it is woman-owned with a male attorney and another female associate. They are working in this organization as a labor of love and because they have the skills we need, are willing to work for nothing only until we get enough funding to pay them for their work. Otherwise I normally have found work outside of the organization to pay the bills.

We work with a diverse group of clients who reside in countries around the world. Some are not English-speaking and so we have tried to use translation software or English-speaking interpreters through friends who work with us in other countries.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
A master’s degree in counseling psychology also gives you job opportunities working as a social worker in some companies. Social work degrees have been around longer and so are more readily recognized and sometimes employers require potential employees hold a master’s degree in social work for a job. Counseling is a specialized field where you choose the kind of therapy provided to your clients. It is not always easy.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change
I started as a volunteer on a domestic violence crisis line when I had a personal experience escaping a batterer. I worked every Monday afternoon for a year and received excellent crisis line counseling training. If I could change anything it would be to find out if a job position included a way that the candidate would receive the licensing supervision they need to become a licensed professional right from the start.

On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
Yes, I was able to make phone calls for five hours straight one day navigating the senior citizen’s complaint I received where the client was unable to receive in-home care she was approved for. At the end of the day, I was able to find out that her choice of provider could get paid while going through the background check and agreed to start immediately. This senior went five months without her in-home care. Sometimes being able to listen carefully and care enough for the person to understand what the client says can add the fuel needed in a very personal crisis to reach a resolution. Knowing that I helped in the life of this elderly woman makes me very happy.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?

When people call during the day, I know I must be fully aware of whatever they are telling me. I get inundated with calls, and must prioritize my time and the resources our organization has. Sometimes a request for information sent to a client does not get sent immediately and so we have to spend some time reviewing what was sent, what was not sent and how we make it right with the client. A recent problem we had with the mail is that the company checking account was compromised. I had to spend time at the bank closing one account and opening another.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
There is so much we want to accomplish with counseling clients, but we don’t have a budget to do so. We are doing what we can and providing individual contact to each person who calls or emails us. Our cases seem overly complex. There is no one agency that solves every person’s complaints. Not only do we provide emergency crisis line counseling and some suggested legal pointers, but we take details about their complaints.

Sometimes I am at work, but planning a mini-vacation. I enjoy buying locally grown veggies from the surrounding outdoor farmer’s markets. In these small ways I budget my time into mini-excursions as a break from the pressures of the job. Counseling provides a lot of satisfaction, but if you help so much without re-energizing your batteries you will burn out.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
From a human perspective I am extremely happy with my job position. I love using my counseling skills in a company that I created. My biggest concern is growing my agency to pay other employees a living wage.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
The salary range for someone with a master’s degree in counseling psychology averages from $33,000 to $45,000 a year. At some point I will be paid the money I feel I deserve if we succeed in obtaining more funding for our organization. Generally speaking, I believe more should be paid for professional counseling.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
One of my most rewarding moments was helping a teenager get some experience with what beauty school was like. She took me to a graduating class photo that hung on the wall of a beauty school she was thinking about attending. Just taking time to make sure she got to see the inside of a beauty school helped her determine what she would do once she was on her own.

Now I think I am most proud of stepping out on my own, after years of counseling experience, to start a nonprofit.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
I’ve had my share of challenging moments. Thinking of one I would prefer to forget would be the time I was suddenly propositioned by a client while in one of the offices where I worked. It was a nuisance more than anything. I was young in my field and thrown by the unexpected comments. Rather than expecting these surprises and having something I could say and redirect the man back to the counseling session, I called other staff to have someone remove him from my office and that was the end of my counseling relationship with that client. As I grew in the field I learned more about how to handle these kinds of clients, and it takes self-honesty and a willing spirit to recognize my own imperfections yet still be able to learn from experience.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Becoming a professional counselor usually requires a master’s degree. In Ohio, for example, you might choose to become a licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor with your master’s degree. This requires 4,000 hours working as a substance abuse counselor and taking a state exam. You might instead decide to become a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist that requires having a licensed supervisor sign off on your 3,000 hour requirement.

As part of your academic requirements, a master’s degree in counseling typically requires you to receive your own therapy for at least 40 hours in order to understand the therapist-client relationship. You will learn about yourself, how you handle problems, what your strengths and weaknesses are and how your personality traits can help someone else.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would tell a friend to decide if they want to stop at earning a Master’s degree, or go on to get licensed. They might also decide to pursue a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy Degree) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology Degree) where they could become licensed at the doctorate degree level. There is a wide variety of employment available to counselors with a master’s degree. Some jobs would be working as a hospital case manager, school counselor, university instructor, provide counseling in a nonprofit, work in a foster family agency, become a mental health advocate for hospital patients, mentor a church group, work for the county or state, have a talk show, author books, become a community group or individual therapist at a number of behavioral health and substance abuse centers, work as a police therapist, or continue your education to become a licensed psychologist.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
I take two weeks vacation a year and it is not enough for me. I find myself taking “mini vacations” with friends at dinner, farmer’s markets, cooking and spending time away from the phone and internet.

Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
Yes, the field of counseling is not solely for the purpose of a counselor to solve their own psychological problems. It may provide a needed activity to help fight injustice that counselors find rewarding. Like school teachers, police officers and nurses, counseling provides a service to make society better.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
Definitely! This is truly wonderful and fulfilling to talk with another human being, and build a trusting interpersonal relationship where you can help that person navigate psychological pain . Through this, you can turn that pain into a positive thing in their lives, and help them resolve their problems. It is like being a healer or a spiritual counselor.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Having a successful nonprofit agency that has the funding to hire other trained counselors, with more of a legal department to fight for justice in the world.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
Yes, I have had to start my own company to solve world problems. I wanted to design a program I couldn’t design in another company and had to branch out to resolve it. My nonprofit works with people who are far-reaching in every corner of the world and we solve problems that requires creative problem-solving. Sometimes when you are unhappy in the environment you find yourself working in you must strike out and find what makes you truly happy. If you plan it right and get some education around what needs to be solved, you may find endless employment possibilities for your degree in counseling psychology.