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MFP Fellows Bridge the Gap During Global Pandemic

Published 5/18/2020


The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early March brought a wave of uncertainty for many individuals, including those working in the mental health professions. Counselors providing services, especially those who work with underserved communities, have had to adapt and find creative and new ways to hold counseling sessions and support groups as well as develop avenues for how they will respond when things return to “normal.” Two Minority Fellowship Program Alumni are doing just that in the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro (SAW) region of Virginia.

In March 2018, Sabrina Burress, Executive Director, and Charles Shepard, Clinical Director, co-founded the ARROW Project, a SAW-based, community-focused health and wellness organization with a mission to alleviate barriers to accessing mental health services by creating innovative partnerships, programming, and professional development opportunities in the region. What began as a conversation in Shepard’s kitchen between two former coworkers alongside Shepard’s wife, herself a counselor in the area, quickly grew into a plan to marry two ideas: creating a nonprofit framework utilizing innovative and collaborative community partnerships with a model of service that would allow them to address the growing and ever-changing needs and disparities of those in their community.

The ARROW Project not only provides free or low-cost mental health services for their community, it also addresses more basic needs such as providing transportation for individuals to receive these regular services.

In mid-March, as the landscape of the entire world began shifting, the ARROW Project began creating and implementing their COVID-19 response plan and transitioned to offering full telehealth services within two weeks of Virginia’s “stay-at-home” order going into effect. They were also able to apply for a COVID-19 emergency response grant through their local Community Foundation. This has allowed them to provide completely free mental health check-ins for those seeking help facing the intense and overwhelming challenges that are now a part of their daily lives.

Burress shares that the ways in which their staff, the majority of whom are graduate students completing internships or licensed clinical social worker volunteers, have stepped in to bridge the gap for their community has been nothing short of “inspiring.” In addition to facilitating virtual support groups and continuing to provide regular remote counseling services, staff have been providing grocery pickups and even making masks for their older constituents. She says, “Collectively, ARROW wants to share the message that we understand your mental health is connected to more than just what you unpack in one counseling session.” She feels that the ways in which their team has stepped in to support so many in their community have illustrated that message and propel some hope as individuals and families navigate this uncertain road.

Burress, who grew up in Staunton, is familiar with the health care disparities that many in the SAW region face during non-pandemic times. Many of those inequalities are related to socioeconomics, geographical location, race, as well as factors concerning those in the LGBTQ+ community. According to a 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment conducted through the local hospital, residents in the SAW region reported incidents of depression higher than the national average, nearly doubling in the region from 2016 to 2019. Suicide deaths per 100,000 residents in the region is 18.6, compared to the national average of 13.6.

These disparities are intensified as individuals and families currently face an overwhelming amount of stress trying to be parent, partner, teacher, and employee, all while navigating paying bills, feeding their families, and worrying about the health and wellness of themselves and their families. Many individuals and families are barely getting by and are merely surviving instead of thriving.

During this time of social and physical distancing, Burress shares, “Among the marginalized populations we serve, particularly our LGBTQ folx, there is a general sense that isolation is a major setback to all the work that so many have been doing . . . so we have a lot of folx showing up to participate in virtual programming as a means of staying as connected to their communities as possible, learning coping, but also discussing reintegration and what that might look like.” Burress also recognizes the “shift in youth populations we serve.” She shares that many kids and teens they serve feel let down and have begun disconnecting from virtual groups or invitations for services. “We don’t miss the fact that [these] will likely be the hardest impacted relationships to repair on the other side of all of this.”

Burress and Shepard both acknowledge that as individuals, themselves included, come out on the other side of this pandemic, they will be “snapping out” of survival mode and navigating who they used to be, who they have become, and who they want to be journeying forward. Though it will be a tough road ahead, the ARROW Project hopes that their response during this time provides some relief and safe spaces for those they already served and new individuals in their community, many of whom face immense challenges during “normal” times.

Though a date for re-opening their space for in-person services is currently unknown, the ARROW Project continues to celebrate victories. They were able to submit their application to receive 501(c)(3) nonprofit status on May 1. This will open doors for new and expanded funding opportunities as well as allow the ARROW Project to continue serving their clients and community in a more holistic way that a for-profit approach may not be able to address.

When asked what advice they would give to other counselors during this time, Burress stresses the need for counseling professionals to “not take for granted the importance of caring for yourself. Tune in to the hard message your brain and emotions are asking you to process . . . and don’t take on more than you can handle in any given moment.” She also echoes what she often shares with her supervisees during this time, an adaptation from writer Eleanor Brown, that “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” Shepard shares a concise “small bites chew easier!”

To learn more about the work of the ARROW Project, visit their website. You can also view a brief interview with Burress and Shepard from WVIR out of Staunton about the free services they’re providing during this time.

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