Dryer: Pivot towards joy and gratitude amid the pandemic
Photo courtesy of Alum Rock Counseling Center

For 45 years, Alum Rock Counseling Center (ARCC) has worked with low-income, predominantly Latinx youth and families in some of the most underserved schools and neighborhoods in East and Central San Jose.

The agency serves 10,000+ people annually, through 13 mental/behavioral health programs, including a 24/7 crisis hotline, individual and family counseling and services in over 50 high-need schools. At a point where the mental and emotional health of the entire world is being stressed by the coronavirus pandemic, ARCC’s staff must figure out how to maintain financial stability and adapt services so they can continue their critical work.

In some ways, although this might sound weird to say, ARCC’s work lends itself well to the current health crisis. Many of ARCC’s counselors work with parents and children who face dire circumstances, including trauma, drug addiction, poverty, family violence, academic failure and gang involvement. Part of the work our counselors do is help clients look beyond their current circumstances towards possibility, helping them find hope. They help them believe they can heal, grow and that brighter tomorrows will come.

With the COVID-19 crisis, things immediately changed for ARCC. Counselors could no longer meet with clients in homes, schools, our clinic or out in the community at a time when our families probably needed their support most of all.

Plus, the agency’s finances were being challenged. As service numbers dwindled due to shelter-at-home orders, ARCC was unable to meet the billable hours mandated by their government contracts, prompting fears of layoffs and furloughs. Adding insult to injury, ARCC’s Annual Fundraising Luncheon, scheduled for March 27 to raise critical unrestricted funds for operations, was indefinitely postponed.

Business as usual was out the window. We needed to establish a new normal and we needed to do it now. But how?

We divided and conquered. ARCC’s CEO, Steve Eckert, along with the executive committee of the Behavioral Health Contractors’ Association began working with local and federal government representatives and our partner behavioral health care agencies to maintain staff capacity during and after the crisis.

Other members of ARCC’s leadership team worked tirelessly — days, nights, weekends — to figure out how to continue to provide services remotely. They needed to learn new technologies and systems on the fly. They needed to create new policies, procedures and forms to ensure continued client confidentiality & safety. And they needed to be there for their teams who not only were worried about their clients but also, in some cases, about their own families and the security of their jobs.

Within a week, the first telehealth sessions were up and running. The number of youth and families being served via telehealth has grown with each passing week since then.

As counselors meet with their clients remotely, many are asking them “What are you most grateful for?” and/or “What are you most hopeful about?” as a way of shifting them towards a future beyond the pandemic.

What have counselors heard? Gratitude for “my family & friends,” “to be alive,” “good health,” “phone check-ins with my counselor,” “coping mechanisms to help with my anxiety,” “being able to share my feelings and get support,” and “my counselor believing in me when nobody else does.” Clients are hopeful about ...  “improving grades,” “graduating high school,” “attending college,” building shelters for the homeless,” “my family improving their problems,” “reducing my anger” and “having a better life.”

It is from those hopeful messages that the concept for ARCC’s “2020 Gratitude & Joy Virtual Fundraiser” was born. The idea is simple: let us do for our donors and supporters what our counselors do for our youth and families. Let us focus on joy, gratitude and hope. In a time where we cannot hug or hold each other and where many of us are physically separated from family, colleagues, loved ones and friends, let us gather (virtually) as a community to heal.

I have been doing development work in the nonprofit sector for over 25 years and in that time I have never hosted a virtual fundraiser. Will it work? Honestly, I don’t know. But the work we do to support the mental and emotional health of youth and families is more critical now than ever before. We must try.

Aligning with the “gratitude and joy” theme, the event promises live auction items, both for stir-crazy kids who are bouncing off the walls and their home-schooling parents who are teetering on the brink of insanity. Presenters will share memes and jokes and provide a chance for us to laugh at ourselves. Each speaker will be asked to share something for which they are thankful or joyful.

Some people have asked if it is appropriate to laugh and celebrate while so many are struggling and suffering. Now is the time to look for hope, to seek joy and to be reminded that we can still support, uplift and be there for one another. If not now, then when?

If you would like to learn more about ARCC’s “Gratitude & Joy Virtual Event” and/or register to join, please visit our website.

Stacy Dryer is Alum Rock Counseling Center's chief development and communications officer.

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