For over 30 years, the New Horizons Family Counseling Center, based in the William & Mary School of Education, has been providing free counseling services to area families with school-age children who are struggling with academic, behavioral and other issues.
Since 2008, the Williamsburg Health Foundation (WHF) has been supporting the center’s work with families exhibiting the most problematic behaviors through a series of grants to fund the specialized Family and Youth Development program. Thanks to renewed support in the form of a $125,000 grant, the center will be able to continue this free, specialized program for high-need families in the greater Williamsburg area.
A focus on family
The New Horizons Family Counseling Center’s specialty is a whole-family approach to counseling. “The symptoms of the child almost always indicate that the family unit as a whole is unable to support itself,” says Professor Victoria Foster, a faculty co-director of the center. “Instead of just trying to fix the kid, we’re able to focus on the entire family,” adds her fellow co-director, Professor Rip McAdams. “Sometimes the work is slower, but the effects are greater and they last longer.”
Families are referred to the center by six partner school divisions — Gloucester, Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg/James City County and York County— which each contribute annual funding to support the family counseling services offered to students and their families. The center now serves 250-300 families per year, offering area families access to family counseling that they would not be able to access or afford otherwise.
Families attend weekly counseling sessions led by advanced master’s and doctoral-level students under the supervision of licensed faculty. The entire family is encouraged to participate in the counseling sessions, and the center offers babysitting and translation services to make that possible. Counseling typically continues for three to five months, depending on the family’s needs.
Extra help for those most in need
About 10 years ago, the center’s staff recognized a need for greater assistance for children exhibiting the most severe problems — behaviors such as aggression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Deeper support was also needed for children and teens undergoing particularly tough transitions at home, such as a difficult divorce or the death or incarceration of a caregiver. To answer this need, Foster and McAdams submitted a grant proposal to WHF in 2008. When funding was approved, the Family and Youth Development program was born.
The intensive 10-week intervention program combines family therapy, children’s group counseling and parent group training on a weekly basis for maximum impact. The leaders of all three components work in close coordination, so that services can be adjusted as needed to best help families. “It’s an intense experience,” says McAdams. “The time commitment and effort required from families is considerable, but it has led to some remarkable results.”
The program’s three-pronged approach to family intervention is rare, and the center’s directors hope its positive outcomes for families will make it a model for services in other communities.
Sustaining the momentum
One of the greatest challenges for the New Horizons Family Counseling Center is keeping up with the need — there is often a waiting list for families to begin counseling. Aside from the two faculty directors, the center is staffed entirely by master’s and doctoral students in the family counseling program. The new grant will help the center keep up with need by fully funding the additional student counselors needed to operate the Family and Youth Development program. These new positions offer advanced graduate students the chance to gain clinical and administrative experience while completing their degree and the clinical practice requirements for licensure. It’s these kinds of opportunities that draw the very best and brightest students to William & Mary’s counseling program, says Foster. “Our students are able to take on new roles as professionals, exploring the areas of research, clinical practice and evaluation.”
It’s a win-win situation, giving students invaluable experiences while addressing a critical need in the community.
Since the start of the grant, the Williamsburg Health Foundation has provided more than half a million dollars in support for the intervention program for high-need families. “When served by the center, families function better and children do better in school,” says Jeanne Zeidler, president and CEO of the foundation. “When we see those two outcomes, WHF knows that a program improves both the current and the future health of those who live in our community.”