College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

Counselors Without Borders Provides Counseling Services in Puerto Rico

April 20, 2018

In March several faculty members from the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at George Mason University had the opportunity to travel to a rural area of Puerto Rico with a small team from Counselors Without Borders. Among the people they met was a 25-year-old who had begun withdrawing from society before Hurricane Maria hit the island last September. After the storm wreaked its devastation, his condition worsened.

He was feeling hopeless and was showing signs of suicidal ideation. Two of the counselors were able to encourage him to leave his house. The group walked through the neighborhood together. Members of the community welcomed the man “as if they hadn’t seen him in years,” says Fred Bemak, academic program coordinator of the Counseling and Development program in CEHD and founder of Counselors Without Borders.

It was a step in the right direction.

Between March 16 and 23, a five-person team—including Lewis Forrest, associate dean for university life at George Mason University; Mason doctoral student Ricardo Sanchez; Mason master’s student Jean Agosto; Rita Chi-Ying Chung, a professor in the Counseling and Development program; and Bemak—visited communities in western Puerto Rico that had received little support after the hurricane. They were joined by two colleagues: Professor Edil Torres-Rivera from South University and Associate Professor Ivelisse Torres Fernandez from New Mexico State University.

The group spent a week visiting with Puerto Ricans, providing them with an outlet to speak about the hardships they were facing.

They met with a woman whose house had been destroyed and who was given just $700 by FEMA as recompense. She was renting a house that was already in disrepair. Her three sons, as well, had all lost their homes.

“You can imagine the stress, the distress,” Bemak says.

The group also met with first responders—residents of Puerto Rico who were the first line of support when the storm hit—and helped them open up about their experiences, some for the first time.

“Not only have they survived a hurricane themselves,” says Chung, “no one has really talked to them about their experience.”

Counselors Without Borders provided skills and training to the first responders, who worked with others and, in addition, had to deal with the same problems themselves.

The group from Counselors Without Borders, by going to Puerto Rico, knew that it would also face hardships over the week—especially mental ones. The team would often be out working by 7 a.m. and wouldn’t return until the evening. When they returned, they were careful to debrief so that they all could process what they had experienced.

The March Puerto Rico trip is one of many that Counselors Without Borders has undertaken—the group has been funded to go to San Diego in response to the recent wildfires, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti several years ago. “This one was quickly put together,” Bemak says of the Puerto Rico trip, which was funded in part by CEHD with matching funds from the provost.

For each of these trips, Bemak and Chung say, what’s most important is how you walk into an environment after a disaster. If you want to effect positive change, you can’t go into a devastated area waving your degree—that won’t establish any credibility.

“They don’t even know our titles,” says Bemak, of the people with whom they spoke in Puerto Rico.

It’s more important to “just hear their story, hear their pain, hear their suffering, and really empathize with them,” Chung says.