When San Carlos resident Suzanne Hughes formed a nonprofit offering mental health services four years ago, she started out with just three interns and a mission to make them affordable and accessible to anyone who might need them.
Trained as a marriage and family therapist, Hughes drew from more than 20 years of mental health experience to identify what she saw as the most pressing mental health needs and build programs to address them. Having worked with seniors through a San Mateo County Health program designed for older adults, Hughes said exploring ways to play music with seniors who have dementia came naturally as a place to start for the nonprofit, called One Life Counseling.
But it was only a matter of time before the nonprofit’s services grew to include private practice offices for individual therapy in several Peninsula cities and school-based programs in San Carlos, Belmont and Redwood City. Though her nonprofit has grown to a staff of 46 therapists working to address a range of mental health needs, Hughes has maintained a focus on finding those who need care and ensuring they receive services as quickly as possible.
“We don’t believe in waiting lists,” she said, acknowledging this approach has proved challenging when the nonprofit receives a high volume of referrals. “People who have mental health needs need to be seen rapidly and they shouldn’t have to wait to get those services.”
Though the nonprofit has four offices in San Carlos, it has expanded to offices in East Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Mateo, said Hughes, who added the nonprofit will soon open doors in Burlingame with the support of a lease from the Peninsula Health Care District. Because the nonprofit is committed to not turning anyone away, she said Medi-Cal is the only insurance the nonprofit is contracted with and anyone else who needs services pays a fee based on what they can afford.
Hughes said One Life Counseling provides out-of-classroom therapy services for every school in San Carlos as well as resiliency training in schools in Belmont, Redwood City and San Francisco, which involves assigning therapists to assist in classrooms one or two days a week for four to six hours at a time. Whether they are teaching mindfulness or meeting individually with students to work through challenges, therapists guiding students through the nonprofit’s resiliency model can help them adjust to changes in their lives, she said.
Since September, the nonprofit has been working with several Redwood City schools to develop a trauma program to help students, some of whom have had traumatic immigration experiences, integrate into their classrooms and process those experiences so they can focus on school, said Hughes. One Life Counseling has partnered with the San Mateo Police Activities League to staff a bilingual therapist at youth activities and in diversion programs. Also part of the nonprofit’s effort to reach a diverse set of clients where they are rather than expecting them to find their offices, Hughes’ nonprofit has worked with Able Works, an East Palo Alto nonprofit teaching financial literacy to immigrants and young adults, to provide mental health resources to their clients.
Range of challenges
By offering a range of services to people of all walks of life, Hughes has come to learn that those seeking services at her nonprofit are likely facing a range of other challenges related to the region’s high cost of living. So she has also included collection of food and clothing donations among her responsibilities, knowing well that people can’t feel better unless their basic needs are met.
“It exploded actually,” she said. “I didn’t anticipate growth for a small nonprofit starting with … $15,000 of my own money to just see what we could do to help in the community.”
Acknowledging the issues their clients are facing range from anxiety about getting into college to divorce late in life, she said the nonprofit’s therapists also work with clients at several different income levels, noting some are worried about putting food on the table while others may not feel a sense of fulfillment despite having many of their basic needs met.
As an executive administrator for One Life Counseling, Jennifer Bautista has worked with families for whom the nonprofit’s holistic approach has made all the difference. She has seen how the nonprofit’s inclusive approach has encouraged those who might not otherwise seek mental health services to get the help they need.
“We don’t turn anyone down,” she said. “Money’s not a problem, so I think that that also helps a lot.”
Training and mentorship
Anna Izzo, an associate marriage and family therapist, noted she has received insightful training and mentorship through her work at the nonprofit, which she said isn’t always the case for those seeking training as a therapist. She said Hughes identifies her staff’s strengths and gives them opportunities to build on them, noting other internships expected to train future therapists may not provide sufficient supervision or pay.
“Here … you will be able to feel that you have value,” she said. “I get to … do things that I care about and that’s significant.”
Hughes acknowledged that finding employees who can afford to live in the area can be challenging, and said she hopes to give them a chance to not only develop their skills with a range of clients but also earn a sustainable income.
Hughes said the nonprofit has received support from the Peninsula Health Care District to sponsor clients in need of mental health services and has also worked with the Redwood City Elementary School District, the Sand Hill Foundation and the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to fund the nonprofit’s wellness and trauma program. As the nonprofit continues to grow with new programs and a deeper reach into school communities, Hughes was hopeful she could continue to expand the nonprofit’s pool of resources.
Given the wide range of urgent mental health needs in the communities her nonprofit works with, Hughes said she hopes there’s not a day when One Life Counseling has a waiting list no matter how big it grows.
“I don’t believe in waiting lists, there shouldn’t be a wait,” she said. “If you can’t see a client, you get them to someone who can see them.”