Finding work, finding solutions - counseling center is busier than ever

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Tom Oxenreider helps Ashlie Lockhart, right, and Caitlin Teague clarify some career goals.

The pizza during class turned into a celebratory meal of sorts for the young adults in the Black Mountain Counseling Center’s career counseling session last week – Caitlin Teague had found a job.

Not only that, but she’d had a couple other offers, including one on her way to class that day. Her new job in a kennel – “I got to wash two dogs today,” she said to the good-natured laughter all around her – is bringing her back to working with animals, something she loves.

Career counseling is one of the many services that the Black Mountain Counseling Center, the only nonprofit mental health organization in the Swannanoa Valley, offers. The center’s caseload and offerings have grown so significantly that Ellen Begley, its only full-time employee, is often looking for new counselors to take on clients. This year the center has averaged three new client referrals each week. Right now it has 23 percent more new clients than it did this time last year.

Nearly half of its clients are at or under the poverty line, Begley said in an interview last week. Forty-five percent are on Medicaid, 26 percent have no insurance and 15 percent have insurance but can’t afford the copay or deductible.

Operating out of the Renae Brame Opportunity House, its home beside Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, Black Mountain Counseling Center provides emotional and behavioral counseling to people from eastern Buncombe County to western McDowell County. Its current clients range in age from 4 to 86.

It often has so many clients between 3 and 7 p.m. that its waiting room fills up. What with the crush and the therapists’ varying hours and workloads, “it’s like trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together,” Begley said. “I’m asking counselors if they can take another (client), and if they say no, I’m looking for someone who can,” she said.

 This year, 10 years after its creation, Black Mountain Counseling Center changed its service model. Whereas before it employed Begley and two other counselors, now it has Begley and a bevy of contract counselors. The change enabled the center to extend the range of services it offers. It allows the center to serve a wider variety of clients, whose problems often fell outside the expertise of the three counselors the center employed before.

Now, the center has nine licensed therapists who can help with trauma, grief and substance abuse, as well as issues that affect women, couples, children and adolescents. The therapists, who work elsewhere or as independent providers, give what time they can to the center. Some have a handful of clients there, others have many.

“The blessing of that is we have counselors who have experience in different areas,” Begley said, “and that means we can truly reach out when something happens and someone needs a specialty. We have folks we can call that can help with whatever the issue is.”

Though its service model has changed, the center’s mission hasn’t – it wants to provide services to any Swannanoa Valley resident who wants them, regardless of their ability to pay.

As a nonprofit, Black Mountain Counseling Center relies heavily on donations from people and organizations and grants by entities such as the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Grants enable the center to offer its free GED, career counseling and parenting classes, as well as the classes it plans to offer to residents of the five “Hope for Tomorrow” duplexes that Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry is building for homeless women and their children.

The center’s free classes are invaluable to people like Teague, who got the job at the kennel, and Ashlie Lockhart, who was also attending Tom Oxenreider’s career counseling session last week before the evening’s GED classes started. Oxenreider began by focusing on the importance – and value – of a good resume.

“The gift of a resume is, it puts you in a position to put yourself on paper and say, who am I professionally?” he said. Lockhart, who has made jewelry, said she had one once, but hadn’t done much with her adult life while living in Texas.

“Thinking about what you’re aiming (the resume) for allows you to shape the content so that you’re putting your best foot forward,” he said. Show it to accomplished people in your field, he told Lockhart, so that by looking at it, they can suggest what skills you need to get a job.

“It’s called ‘informational’ interviewing,” Oxenreider, a career coach who is a former associate dean for calling and career at Montreat College, said. Talking to professionals in your field of interest helps you build a network of people who know you’re trying to improve your skills. Informational interviewing is not about getting a job, though it may lead to one, he said.  

“That last question of any informational interview is, is there anyone else you recommend I talk to,” he told Lockhart. “And ask, is it OK that I say you referred me? You’re being assertive, confident. You’ve left them with a good impression. They think, maybe this person could work here.”

Oxenreider will return to the Black Mountain Counseling Center soon to begin a three-part career coaching class. “Finding Meaningful Work” meets 6-7:30 p.m. Nov. 1, 8 and 15 (sign up by contacting the counseling center).

Free parenting class

Ilene Procida and Hanna Woody will present a free six-week workshop for parents of adolescents at Black Mountain Counseling Center from 5:30-7 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 16-Nov. 20. A light meal will be provided. To learn more, contact the center at 669-9798 or