As a professor and coordinator of Niagara University’s clinical mental health counseling program, I must always make time for clinical practice. I spent four weeks doing volunteer work in South Africa during May and June. I volunteered my counseling, training and consultation services in six different orphanages, making 18 presentations ranging from 1-5 hours and assisted in group and individual counseling. I also had the pleasure of being a keynote at a conference for social workers and child care workers in Durban, South Africa. Although this sounds like a busy schedule, let me assure you it was very rewarding.
I also served as a consultant on treatment issues with children ranging from 6 months to 18 years old. Many of the children are HIV+ orphans, though others have been removed from their families due to neglect of various types of abuse and neglect. Thus, most of my work was focused on understanding the role trauma plays in the lives of the children and how the staff can promote resilience. Roughly 90 percent of the orphans were Zulus (the large cultural group in the Kwa Zulu Natal region) with some 10 Afrikaner children (European origin).
The mental health needs in South Africa are tremendous, especially with regard to addressing trauma recovery. Of the nearly 500 children and adolescents in the orphanage systems, virtually all have experienced significant trauma. Yet the amazing thing was just how hopeful many of the children seemed to be. The staff at the orphanages were doing a very good job, especially given the circumstances. Though the pace was very busy and the issues overwhelming at times, the experience was very fulfilling.
I would like to return in the next couple of years and take a student or two with me as the experience would be transformative.