‘The family is key’

Lillian Simmons
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Family Life Bureau strives to fulfil growing need; wait list has tripled in three years

Sister Loretta Walsh has seen a few changes in her 18 years at the Family Life Bureau, a non-profit centre that offers counselling services. At one point she was the lone counsellor at the centre. But more recently her dedication has resulted in the rebuilding of a practice that provides counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups and offers a variety of workshops and seminars.

Staff at the Family Life Bureau stop outside their offices for a photo — (from left) Katrina Etchegary, Lito Libres, Loretta Walsh, Catherine Tangsley and Denise Sergeant.
— Photo By Lillian Simmons /Special to The Telegram

Sister Loretta Walsh has seen a few changes in her 18 years at the Family Life Bureau, a non-profit centre that offers counselling services.

At one point she was the lone counsellor at the centre. But more recently her dedication has resulted in the rebuilding of a practice that provides counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups and offers a variety of workshops and seminars.

The Family Life Bureau was established under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s in 1976. Walsh started out as a counsellor there in 1996 and became director in 2000.

Trying to find the funds to stay afloat is always an issue, she says, and by the early 1990s other churches in the city had let go of their counselling services.

“But the family is key, is the main unit of society, so even though the diocese is in debt we still continue to provide that service to families because that is our belief, that’s our reason to be. And our mandate is to the poor and the working poor.”

Counselling is offered free to seniors, students and anyone on income support, and on a sliding scale to those who can afford it. (For example if a person makes $10 an hour, the charge is $10 per session.)

“Gifts to support the Family Life Bureau are tax deductible and very much appreciated.”

Each year Walsh finds more people are availing of the counselling services — marital issues, physical, sexual and other types of abuse, grief, mental health issues like anxiety, depression and on occasion spiritual distress.

“As a matter of fact, during the last three years it’s gone from 1,200 to 1,800 (clients). Our wait list over the past two to three years has tripled. At the moment we have about 45, that’s not counting people for individual groups, that’s people for various types of counselling.”

Walsh believes what makes the centre different from other counselling agencies is its spiritual aspect and holistic approach.

“Pastoral counselling is the healing of the mind, spirit and relationships, through the wisdom of behavioural sciences, just like any counselling centre, but with the overlay of the spiritual. And our philosophy is that anyone who seeks help is welcome.”

The centre sees people of all faiths and no faith. For some religion is important.

“However, there are others who choose not to be affiliated with any religious framework. Those who come here find acceptance whether they are affiliated with religion or not.”

She says giving people permission to talk about spirituality if it helps them, can be useful in the counselling process.

“But in no way would we ever impose it.”

Walsh joined the Mercy Congregation in 1967 and taught school for 11 years, then trained as a nurse specializing in mental health psychiatric nursing, working at the psychiatric unit at St. Clare’s Hospital from 1980 to 1995.

She began working as a counsellor in 1996 and since then has taken several study leaves, and has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counselling and a graduate diploma in Spirituality.

“I think the spiritual piece really opens it up so much. Religion is only one aspect of spirituality.”

Since taking over the directorship of the bureau she counsels part time, but has two other full time counsellors, Denise Sergeant and Lito Libres, on staff.

“We’re also supplemented by a student, Catherine Tangsley, who is in her last semester of the Master Counselling Psychology program.”

Secretary Katrina Etchegary rounds out the team of five who work out of the spacious offices located in a wing of the Roman Catholic Basilica on Military Road.

Sergeant says she was attracted to the Family Life Bureau because of the relational focus and the diversity of the work.

Originally from Grand Bank, she had a private practice in Winnipeg for a while. When she was ready to return to Newfoundland she was happy to find a position with the Family Life Bureau.

“My specialty would be in marriage and family, but I do see individuals, as well, working with anxiety, trauma.”

She runs the parenting group, helping parents deal with issues with their kids, or with people whose children aren’t in their care and who are working to have them brought back into their home.

“Lito and I are both trained in various means in working with families and children; that’s a piece that we hope to see grow within the next year, to be able to see more children.”

Having spent 10 years as a pastor, she liked the flexibility of adding spirituality to her work because it’s important clients have that option.

“Here there is freedom to do that. It’s not a requirement, but certainly there’s lots of room to follow the client where they would go in that process.

“I think the thing I appreciate most is how accessible Family Life Bureau is. We’re one of the few that provides a sliding scale for people to receive the help they need. That was important to me.”

All cultures

From the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, Toronto to Vancouver to California, Libres went from working in accounting for 25 years to obtaining his Masters in Counselling Psychology with emphasis on marriage and family therapy, and transpersonal clinical psychology from Sofia University in Palo Alto, Calif.

After attending a transformational arts college in Toronto and getting therapy to help understand himself, he wanted to use his experience to help others and eventually found himself at Sofia University.

He has a Masters level certificate in expressive arts and has worked as a school counsellor.

“It was young children, so the only way for them to work with me was through play, through creative arts, using play therapy,” he explains.

He believes all kinds of psychologies are needed to really cover the holistic, the full human experience.

During his work in transpersonal psychology he studied comparative religions, which is not very common when you study psychology, he says. It gave him an understanding of religions from atheism to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and even shamanism traditions.

“In every area you are able to understand where they are coming from in terms of their cultural and spiritual/religious background…and not be judgemental about their culture and religion. Right now I’m seeing two Muslim clients and for them to know I was in Saudi Arabia makes them feel at home with me,” he offers as an example.

Along with counselling at the centre, Libres travels to communities as far away as St. Mary’s Bay, delivering psycho-spiritual educational materials and giving presentations.

Family Life Bureau also provides group-counselling sessions, which start Sept. 24 (see sidebar). One of the newer sessions, Mindfulness Awareness, which helps people live in the present, is facilitated by Andrew Safer, Mindfulness instructor and writer.

As well, the bureau is involved in outreach programs like parish nursing as part of a wellness clinic at The Gathering Place, a drop-in centre for inner city poor. Another program, MakeYouThink, is a values and character education program helping youth make healthy choices.

telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Family Life Bureau, Master Counselling Psychology, Grand Bank Sofia University

Geographic location: California, Clare, Saudi Arabia Toronto Winnipeg Newfoundland Philippines Vancouver Palo Alto, CaliforniaAfter

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