Oakland University master’s student Sean O’Tuathal has been working to help people through problems with anxiety, stress, gender identity issues and substance abuse while gaining the credit hours needed to earn her degree, thanks to Affirmation’s counseling program.
The program is simple and effective. Clients sign up for an evaluation session, which costs just $25. They meet with a counselor, usually an intern from Oakland, Wayne or Michigan State Universities, and pay based on a sliding-scale system. The counselor meets with them in counseling rooms set up in the basement of the community center, and helps them work on whatever mental health problem they may have.
O’Tuathal is a 48-year-old Ferndale resident who spent more than ten years as a high school English teacher before returning to school to become a counselor. “I was teaching alternative education and I had seen every kind of broken in that system,” O’Tauthal said. “I felt like I could make more change if I was helping at an individual level.” She is now seeking a master’s in counseling with a specialization in couples and families.
“I want to help all kinds of families,” she said. “Relationships are relationships and they all suffer the same kind of issues.”
Working with Affirmations gives her a chance to help people in the LGBT community, a group that is traditionally underserved for counseling services. The counseling program at Affirmations helps fill in the gap in the metro Detroit area. It held 343 counseling sessions last year.
Shelly McCalester, counseling program supervisor, said that there are between 10-12 interns working with the center at any given time, and that 43 have come through the program so far.
“In the LGBT community people often don’t feel accepted at other facilities,” she said. “With Affirmations they know it’s a welcoming atmosphere. And the interns that come through the program are able to go back out into the world and bring that acceptance and experience working with LGBT clients wherever their work takes them.”
Interns are required to work 600 hours in a clinical setting, 300 of which must be spent with clients. The program gives students a chance to earn those hours, while serving the Affirmations community. Though the interns are not paid, the program has administrative costs that are paid for by the community center.
“This is one of our essential services,” said Affirmations Interim Executive Director Kevin Howley. “We are working on grant writing right now to keep this program funded because it serves the community in so many ways. Knowing that 43 more counselors are out there with a better understanding of LGBT client needs makes it a worthwhile way to not only help people here who need it, but the community as a whole. It’s great to think of LGBT acceptance spreading this way.”
O’Tauthal is nearly finished with her internship, and says it will be hard moving on. “You’re not going to meet a group of people whose hearts are more into what they do than here at Affirmations,” she said. “It’s really important to me to be in an organization that is focused on a positive, progressive community change.” She hopes to find work in a clinic after she graduates.
More information about the counseling program and other services offered at Affirmations can be found at http://www.goaffirmations.org.