By Rodrigo Hernandez
Jennifer F. Smith, licensed clinical professional counselor and program director for the Encompassing Center of the West Side Expanded Mental Health Services Program, sees its history and role as crucial during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Located at 3019 W. Harrison St., the Encompassing Center opened in October 2019. A coalition that promotes mental health centers and other community leaders assembled and successfully petitioned to get mental health centers on the ballot as a referendum several years ago. The measure passed, giving the go-ahead for Cook County property taxes to fund mental health services in the Near West Side-West Side area. The Encompassing Center was the result.
Smith stressed the Encompassing Center is the second center successfully opened thanks to voters and funding, with the Kedzie Center at 4141 N. Kedzie Ave the first opened almost six years ago.
Smith noted her “role as the program director is to collaborate between the different stakeholders,” including Catholic Charities, the service provider the Encompassing Center contracted with, as well as the commissioning board, coalition, staff, and community partners throughout the area.
Encompassing Center staff includes two case managers, a substance abuse counselor, and several therapists who have different niches including couples’ therapy, yoga instruction, and children and family therapy through art and movement. The site’s receptionist and two of the therapists are bilingual in English and Spanish.
The past year has required innovations and flexibility. “We weren’t open that long before the pandemic hit,” said Smith. The center added safety precautions such as temperature checks and screenings and worked to ensure staff remained healthy. Also, staff “had to really adjust to what’s called telehealth services” and can continue providing individual counseling and case management services through telehealth in the future. The center also has funded computers for a few clients in need.
“We’ve been able to be there for clients to obtain the basic needs such as applying for benefits such as unemployment benefits and SNAP or getting linked to other resources like food pantries, housing, and just being a support during this time,” stated Smith.
She noted many local residents do not know of the center’s presence and services, so “Now, we’re really trying to get back out there and get our name known because we’re one of those hidden gems that a lot of people don’t know,” added Smith.
During the pandemic, many other community organizations have been “getting way more clients,” while Encompassing Center has “been partnering to try alleviating some of that stress of our partners in the community as well.”
For Smith, hearing different stories and witnessing clients’ growth has become the most fulfilling part of her job.
“You get so many great clients coming through the door with different walks of life, different concerning issues of why they’re seeking services,” she explained. Some clients get counseling for mandated reasons, and some come voluntarily, and “To see them come in and really grow, shine, and develop through the staff here has been amazing, so I love checking in to see where clients are at.”
Smith acknowledged stigmas against mental health treatment. “People often think that they must be crazy or it must be something bad if you need to seek mental health services,” she said. “But it can be as simple as wanting to gain healthy communication skills with your partner, become a better parent, or strengthening the things you really like and enjoy through self-expression.”
Smith also stressed self-care is necessary and not a selfish act. It is often necessary before taking care of others, much like putting on an emergency flight safety mask yourself before helping others with theirs. “You have to take care of yourself first before you take care of anything else, whether it’s your job or with your family or community,” she stressed. “You have to fill your cup up.”
Mike Schuetter, an Encompassing Center substance abuse counselor, said, “It’s been honestly very interesting being there from the beginning to where we are now being the year of the pandemic, adjusting to telehealth and stuff like that.”
He noted he felt open to consult colleagues with different training for therapy assistance and referrals. “There’ve been very few clients where, for whatever reasons, we had to refer out because they needed a higher level of care or they needed something we couldn’t safely provide,” he said. “It hasn’t happened much as far as I know.”
Upcoming projects include an emergency food pantry, partnership with Rush University Medical Center for psychiatric services, and two staff working toward anger management services certification. “If you have any questions about the process of using our services, we’re always here to help with questions and answers,” added Smith.
Schuetter said he really likes “seeing the progress and changes in my clients, and that’s more of a general reason of why I like therapy.” Also, the area and the majority non-white clientele contribute to the center’s uniqueness.
While he understands the public’s mental healthcare skepticism, Schuetter noted he enjoys seeing the area’s diverse communities embracing mental health services that usually might go ignored or undervalued.
A client’s story
Sharde Snyder, a single mother of four and client in the Encompassing Center, shared her experience with staff. She came to the center as a recommendation from one of her son’s teachers, and her son became the center’s first client. Although the family learned about the center due to her child’s behavioral issues at school, eventually everyone in the family came for counseling from the center.
“It’s been great,” said Snyder. “They’ve been very supportive with our mental health during this pandemic.
“I’m just glad for the Encompassing Center to have come, that I found out about this program, something to bring back to myself, to my children, to give us an outlet, to talk about different things and even other things that we may need. They are always very helpful. Any resources that we need I can reach out to them.”
Contact the Encompassing Center at (773) 638-5703.