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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

In the Loop

An Even Exchange

UTSA graduate students offer free counseling services to gain experience

It’s a case of small talk sparking a big idea. In the fall of 2006, UTSA doctoral student Efraim Padilla was attending a cocktail party and fundraiser hosted by psychiatrist Fermin Sarabia. Padilla, already a licensed counselor, had met Sarabia when both worked at the Bexar County Center for Health Care Services.

Robert Gee, Sue Clifford, and Efraim Padilla

Since its inception in 2007, the Sarabia Community Family Life Center has provided mental health care to 120 clients. Pictured (from left) are Robert Gee, clinical assistant professor in UTSA’s Department of Counseling; Sue Clifford, a cohort in the counseling Ph.D. program; and Efraim Padilla, a licensed counselor who supervises the cohorts.

“Dr. Sarabia was trying to raise donations for the Guadalupe Community Center, where he sits on the board,” Padilla recalls. Lacking spare change, Padilla wondered aloud if the center offered mental health services. If so, he’d be glad to volunteer his skills as a professional counselor.

The Guadalupe Community Center (GCC), a sprawling complex located at the corner of Pinto and West Durango streets, is a program of Catholic Charities of San Antonio that offers food and clothing assistance, after-school programs, chess tournaments, summer camps, even folkloric dance classes. At the time, it did not run a mental health clinic, though Sarabia said he had always wanted to provide this service for the vulnerable population served there. Hearing this, Padilla’s response was instant. “How ’bout we create one?”

The timing was perfect. Padilla and four cohorts in UTSA’s counseling Ph.D. program—Sue Clifford, Margaret Costantino, Martitza Lebron-Striker and Gabriel Vallejo—were looking for a practicum site, a venue where they could provide counseling under the supervision of an experienced clinician. If Sarabia would supervise them and if Catholic Charities and the GCC would provide a space, they would get to work. As part of their training, graduate students in counseling are required to complete a total of 700 hours of practicum and internship experiences.

The students’ initial set-up was modest. “We started in a small room that we shared with the ballet folklorico dancers, where there were costumes and candy and pickles and sodas,” Padilla recalls. But clients—largely uninsured or underinsured working poor—found their way there. Inevitably, the project began to outgrow its space.

Enter the Stardust Club, a local foundation dedicated to improving the lives of families in the Guadalupe Community Center area. The foundation donated $5,000 to renovate a spacious room in the GCC into a reception area and small offices.

When the renovations were complete, the practicum site was officially dedicated as the Sarabia Community Family Life Center. Today, master’s and doctoral students provide free counseling to families, couples, children and adults. Since its modest beginnings in 2007, the students have provided care for 120 clients—three quarters of whom are women.

“The demand is great,” says Robert Gee, clinical assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Counseling. “For us, it provides the clinical training for students with clients having real-world problems.” Gee cites economic stressors, parenting and family relationships, substance abuse, criminal involvement, health concerns, marital issues, couple counseling and domestic violence as problems that clients seek help for at the Sarabia Center.

The Sarabia Center serves “people who fall between the cracks” of the health care system, Padilla says. “There [are] people out there who work, and their insurance doesn’t cover psychotherapy. … And they don’t have Medicaid. They’re the working poor.”

Recently, the Sarabia Center has begun providing services off-site for families from Parent Child Incorporated, Any Baby Can, University Hospital’s Saucedo OB-GYN Clinic and the Guadalupe Home for pregnant women escaping abusive relationships.

One of the most exciting developments, say UTSA staff members, is an outreach counseling effort for families associated with the Wounded Warrior Project at Operation Homefront Village, a free housing development for those injured servicemen receiving rehabilitative treatment at area hospitals.

With continued support and a highly collaborative model, Padilla sees more growth for the Sarabia Center in the future, mirroring the growth of UTSA’s counseling programs. The Ph.D. program in counselor education and supervision, which started in 2005 with eight students, now has 28.

The dream that started the Sarabia Center continues. Sarabia, in conjunction with the Stardust Club, recently donated another $10,000 to the center. Padilla hopes to see a “one-stop clinic” in place one day, where social workers, therapists, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, along with students, are working with the community.

“People would hear about UTSA and hear about the Sarabia Center and know that if you want to get an experience doing community counseling with the Hispanic population, go to UTSA,” Padilla says.

- Lynn Gosnell

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