Therapeutic Healing

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Providing affordable mental health services for Central Texans in need, Waterloo Counseling Center has always been an advocate for the GLBT community and people affected by HIV/AIDS. As a new year dawns, the organization plans to continue its mission of diversity in hopes of bettering people’s lives through counseling.

More than a quarter century ago, Austinite Paul Clover went to see a therapist. A gay activist and counselor himself, Clover understood the value of therapy and simply sought an advisor with whom he could share his troubles. He was disheartened to find, instead, a therapist whose sole concern was his sexual orientation.

“First we need to deal with the fact that you’re gay,” the counselor told Clover.

Feeling discouraged and somewhat demoralized, Clover had a realization: There was a very real need for a gay- and lesbian-friendly therapy center in Austin. So in 1983, with the help of other therapists, Clover opened Waterloo Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization providing affordable mental health counseling services, and advocating specifically for the GLBT community and people affected by HIV/AIDS.

With the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the center quickly became a refuge for many Austinites whose lives were influenced so painfully by the disease. And, though Clover died from AIDS-related complications about a decade after opening Waterloo Counseling Center, he left behind an organization that had and would continue to become a god- send for many.

Today, more than 25 years later, Waterloo Counseling Center provides guidance to hundreds of people every year (650 in 2007 alone), offers an array of counseling services and group therapy sessions, receives funding from a variety of sources (including city and county governments and faith- based foundations), and has increased its annual budget significantly. And things are only getting better for the organization that started 2008 with a budget of $320,000, and ended the year with a $450,000 budget.

“2008 was a beautiful year for us,” says Jean Lyons, executive director of Waterloo Counseling Center. 
Lyons, a longtime clinical social worker and the former program director for Austin nonprofit Any Baby Can, joined the center as executive director in January 2007, and quickly got to work defining the group’s new goals, identifying gaps in programs and searching for additional funding sources.

“One gap that was clear was that we really needed a mobile agency for AIDS counseling,” Lyons says. “So we started proposing that.”

The group got a response from what might seem an unlikely ally: the Brazos Valley Council of Governments, the multi-purpose civic organization representing Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Leon, Madison, Robertson and Washington counties. After receiving funding from the BVCOG in April, Waterloo Counseling Center was able to expand its services and reach those in need outside of the Austin area.

The city of Austin provided funding to the center in June, enabling the nonprofit to assign two counselors to its HIV/AIDS Responsive Therapy (HART) program, which, when combined with proper medical treatment, has been shown to improve the health of HIV/AIDS patients.

And since 2006, Waterloo Counseling Center has received funding from St. David’s Community Health Foundation, with funding growing from $20,000 to $50,000 to $112,000 during a three-year period.

“That has been the most awesome partnership,” Lyons says, adding that the foundation support helped fund a strategic management retreat in which Lyons and her staff were able to develop a set of goals for 2008. Those included diversifying funding, adding more outreach and training, growing staff to five full-time employees (the center began the year with two full-timers), and developing the organization’s board.

“By June, we had met all four goals,” Lyons says. “But I think the highlight of the year was being nominated for a Nonprofit Excellence Award for Learning in Action from Greenlights [for Nonprofit Success] – and we won!”

Though the past year has been good to Waterloo Counseling Center, there’s still much work to be done, and Lyons has many more goals for the organization including adding counseling programs, establishing a 24-hour GLBT- friendly help line, strengthening programming for youth groups, and further identifying gaps in service for GLBT and low-income clients. And since the center’s lease at its 3000 S. I-35 office is up in September, this year’s goals may include looking for a new home.

But despite its growing list of objectives, Lyons says the single-most important ambition for Waterloo Counseling Center is to provide mental health services to as many people as possible, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identification, age, race, nationality, religion or disability.

“Mental health is what helps us deal with stress. If I’m sick and I have relationship problems I can take my meds, but I’m also going to need to talk to somebody about my problems,” Lyons says. “Therapy is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And we will try to never turn anyone away.”

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