As a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate in Colorado, Pamala Kaiser-Helmick was tasked with completing thousands of hours of mental health services in order to obtain her licensure. In order to do so, she started working with Spark the Change Colorado, a nonprofit organization that engages individuals through volunteerism and service. As part of their Pro Bono Mental Health Program, Spark the Change connected her with those within her community who need mental health services but can’t afford them — a volunteer relationship that Pamala still maintains today.
For her first six months with the organization, Pamala was placed at a battered women’s shelter where she worked with seven clients on a pro-bono basis. She was then sent to Warren Village, an affordable, transitional housing program specifically for low-income, single-parent families in downtown Denver. In the over two years she has volunteered at Warren Village, she has worked with 33 clients, providing them much-needed, free mental health counseling in order to prepare them for life outside of the program.
Describe your volunteer role with Spark the Change.
Spark the Change was formally known as Metro Volunteers. … They have a Pro Bono Mental Health Program of Colorado. This program connects folks who are undeserved for one reason or another — maybe they don’t have insurance or income, or whatever the reason is — with pro bono, free mental health services. I volunteer through their program. It’s been a little but more than two years I’ve been with them. I have volunteered through a battered women’s shelter. I provided mental health services inside the shelter for about six months. For a little more than two years now, I’ve provided services at Warren Village. Warren Village is a program in the heart of downtown Denver. It’s a transitional housing program for extremely low-income, single-parent households. They have to apply to get in. Once they are accepted, it’s an apartment building and they’re given a place to live with their children. However, there are pretty rigid requirements in order to stay in the program. They have to be working on a degree or a certificate or a licensure involved in school, or they have to be full-time employed, or a combination of the two. They have staff to help each of the residents with this. They have to take parenting classes, financial classes, everything from balancing a checkbook to making investments. The point is to set them up to be able to provide for themselves after they leave the program. It’s between about two and three years. Depending on the degree they’re working on, it might take a little longer so they may need an extension, or plans change when you’re a single parent and such. My role at Warren Village through Spark the Change is I’m the therapist. They don’t have a therapist there and they don’t have it within their budget. [Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic] I was going there about twice a week to provide individual therapy for the adults there.
Why is it important for the people you are working with at Warren Village to have access to mental health resources?
A tremendous amount of those folks, the work I do with them is trauma. Without my volunteering, a lot of them don’t have access to the services. It’s important for their mental health in order for them to overcome some of the obstacles they’ve been through and to have a better future and to provide for their children. All of them are single parents.
Why did you want to complete so many of your licensure hours at Warren Village, and then continue to keep volunteering there?
There’s a few different things. I enjoy working with this population. I feel they are very appreciative. They’re very engaged and very interested in doing some of the mental health work and healing that needs to be done in order to be healthier. Something I’m really noticing at Warren Village — even though this is pro bono for them, I’m volunteering there, they are very engaged, maybe more so than some of the other populations and places that I work.
Why is mental health wellness important to you?
It’s just as important as medical health. I think that a lot of folks, if you have a cold or bronchitis or something, you’re going to go see a medical physician. In order for us to be balanced and healthy as individuals, and stop some of the cycles from our childhood, we have to work on mental health issues as well. It’s just as important as a medical health issue.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Seeing folks make these changes. Watching the progress as they’re working through different [issues], recovering from trauma or anxiety or whatever it is that they’re dealing with. I think what’s very rewarding is towards the end of therapy, as they’re graduating so to speak and moving on, seeing the changes they have made. Seeing the hard work that they’ve done. Being able to witness the healing that’s happened for them. Any part of that I played is absolutely incredibly rewarding. It’s an absolute honor to be any part of the healing that these folks are going through.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned a lot about generational poverty. I’ve learned a lot about the human spirit and determination to not give up, to not quit. It’s been pretty remarkable how strong a lot of these people are, some of the traumas and things they’ve come through and how they’re surviving and how they’ve managed to survive so far.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
You should probably never judge somebody by their current life circumstances. Everybody has a back story. Be gentle with everybody you come across for you don’t know what sort of battle they’re fighting. I think that’s really, really the case. A lot of these folks I’m working with have been very judged because maybe they receive assistance in the form of food stamps or something like that, maybe they’ve been homeless. I think for other folks that would be reading this story and learning about this, that is very, very inaccurate. Don’t judge others. You don’t know their background. You don’t know their story. You don’t know the reasons for where they’re at at the time.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think none of us are in this alone. I think that helping others helps yourself. You feel good about yourself by volunteering and lifting others up. None of us are in this alone. We must help each other to get through tough times and the good times.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Pamala? Find local volunteer opportunities.