Outreach counselors offer hope, compassion, optimism to student body


[Source: Lesley Thalhuber] Art by Kelsey Morgret

Ji-Sung Lee

[dropcap style=”light” size=”4″]W[/dropcap]hen junior Kayla West walks through the halls of the school, a simple smile from outreach counselor Lesley Thalhuber can change how she feels. It’s Thalhuber’s presence alone that brings West a sense of hope.  In one case, West remembers sharing information with Thalhuber, and instead of immediately getting mad or calling her father, Thalhuber talked it through with West.  West recalls being reminded that although it may be dark now, she could fight past it.  It is Thalhuber’s optimism, care and her ability to tie in her own experiences that helps students see past the struggles they face at the time.
Thalhuber, who has worked in the mental health field since 1998, joined the Columbia Public Schools (CPS) district in 2012.  Since then she has dedicated her work to provide individual, crisis and group counseling in the school setting in addition to family consultation and mediation between students.  
Outreach counselors like Thalhuber provide responsive services to students, parents, teachers and staff in order to foster good mental and behavioral health. Crisis intervention and referrals are common daily responsive services she performs as well. Facilitating groups dealing with drug and alcohol use or the Hope club are some additional tasks Thalhuber enjoys.
With the long list of duties Thalhuber performs daily,  it’s clear to see her efforts to improve the school’s environment.  West said outreach counselors, specifically Thalhuber, have touched the lives of many, including herself.  One example of the kindness and warmth outreach counselors portray is shown in Brooke Githegi, a previous staff member at RBHS who moved to Hawaii this past summer.  Despite the many miles that keep West and Githegi distant, West said the two have remained in contact and recently met up when both were in town.
“If a student is in crisis, it is the job of an outreach counselor to intervene and help them through the problems they are facing and work to connect them to other resources in the community to further work through those issues,” West said.  “If a student is suicidal or has made an attempt on their life, they will work with an outside provider and/or the hospital to stabilize a student and get them to a safe place and lower their suicidality.  They help in areas that teachers and other dominators can’t. They go above and beyond of what is expected of them. I honestly don’t know where I would be without them.”
Most of the work outreach counselors perform is behind the scenes, however, making it more difficult to appreciate their contributions to both the school and the community.  
“The stories shared and interventions used are all private work,” Thalhuber said. “The work we do consulting between student therapists, doctors and families also takes a lot of time to be sure we are all on the same page to help a student get the most of the supports that are in place.”
Along with being an outreach counselor at school, Thalhuber enjoys pro-active outreach work that helps to spread kindness as a way to improve the emotional and mental health issues of youth in Columbia. One of the ways she does this is through the Children’s Grove and its volunteer work, which helps to promote a Youth Kindness Ambassador program.
“Our Youth Kindness Ambassadors at Rock Bridge are some of the most active in town and are doing a lot of great things at our school to promote mental health awareness, service to others, being kind and more,” Thalhuber said. “I get really excited about this pro-active work. It provides a nice balance for me considering all of the work that revolves around depression, suicidality, anxiety, abuse, homelessness and more.”
Junior Madison Hopper, a Youth Kindness Ambassador has seen firsthand the passion Thalhuber carries in her work.  
“The goals of HOPE Club and Kindness Ambassadors are perfectly intertwined, and Ms. Thalhuber is an amazing leader for both of these organizations,” Hopper said.  “She is a wonderful example of kindness, patience and compassion.”
Thalhuber is the only outreach counselor at RBHS.  Outreach counselors specifically are licensed mental health professionals with Master’s degrees in social work or counseling and are employed in the secondary buildings, Thalhuber said.  According to Time Magazine a study of national trends in depression among adolescents and young adults published in the Pediatrics journal found that teens who reported a major depressive episode (MDE) in the last 12 months has increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2014.  Outreach counselors like Thalhuber make it their own mission to decrease these numbers and respond to mental health needs.  While her work is no easy task, Thalhuber has clear goals in hopes of supporting all students who walk through the school’s doors.  
[quote]“I want more students to ask for help before they get to this point [of suicide and self-harm],” Thalhuber said. “I hope that mental health awareness helps to destigmatize mental health issues enough where students know it’s ok to need help sometimes.”[/quote] Thalhuber describes some of her work as heartbreaking, but it’s students like West who appreciate the counselors for just listening and understanding on a day to day basis.  West said even on days when counselors have problems of their own, they are always willing to set everything aside.
“Lesley Thalhuber is [the] reason hope club exists. [She has] given me hope even in the darkest of times,” West said. “They all have seen me at my best and at my worst and no matter what, [they] always manage to bring a smile to my face or make me laugh about something completely random to distract me.  I can honestly say I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for them stepping in and helping me when I couldn’t do it myself.”
What have outreach counselors done for you? Let us know in the comments below.