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With $10 therapy sessions, SLO counseling center serving more clients than ever

Marisa Martineau is a 19-year-old freshman Cal Poly architecture student who suffers from anxiety.

Martineau, who is paying her way through college without family support, said personal challenges and incidents — both in her past and in her first few months of college — intensified her symptoms, overwhelming her thoughts and making it hard to concentrate.

Her self-esteem suffered. Friends offered sympathy, but they weren't trained to work through the problems. Martineau needed more comprehensive sessions than the university could provide, so she found her way to the nonprofit Community Counseling Center.

"Pretty much every little worry became bigger, and your mind just makes things worse than they are," Martineau said. "Through Community Counseling, I've learned to take one little section and talk about it, and little by little start to mend, so it's not just one big mountain that overwhelms me."

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Volunteer therapist Dr. Steve Kadin, left, cabinet members Dr. Elie Axelroth, and Irene Iwan, and volunteer therapist Dr. Jamie Hutchcraft at the Community Counseling Center in San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

About the center

The nonprofit with branches and satellite offices countywide — including San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Grover Beach, Cambria and Atascadero — served more than 2,200 clients in 2017, its most ever and a 37.5 percent increase over its 2011 totals.

The program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. While commemorating its history, it's building a new 2,300-square-foot downtown San Luis Obispo headquarters at 676 Pismo St. near St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Emerson Park with the goal to open in August.

The new therapy center and administrative headquarters will increase San Luis Obispo office space by 40 percent from its current Marsh Street location.

The center serves a wide range of people — veterans, teens, homeless, LGBTQ people, students, Spanish speakers, parents and many others who might be in need of counseling.

Last year was the center's largest number of inquiries and referrals in its history.

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Therapist volunteers and staff Lisa Grassle, left, Don Maruska, Sheila Lassegard and James Statler, executive director, now work out of the Community Counseling Center's March Street office in San Luis Obispo. The group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and has plans to move into a new building at 676 Pismo St. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

How they can help

Therapists work with people on a number of personal challenges — relationship struggles, grief, depression, eating disorders, and phobias, among others.

"We’re the place that people go to when they’re not sick enough to receive county public health care and can’t afford private therapy," Statler said. "We do preventative care so they don’t end up in a chronic situation of mental illness."

The center also contracts with schools to provide therapists on campuses and a hotline. They work with kids facing social isolation, bullying or divorce, among others.

The concept was launched in 1968 after the local Ministerial Association, which had been working informally with troubled residents, sought the guidance of professional therapists and established a professional support system.

The ministers were seeing a rise in Vietnam War veterans returning home with trauma — many facing depression, PTSD, anger and severe mood swings — and coordinators felt the needed counseling was beyond their expertise, Statler said.

Community Counseling Center, with no religious affiliation, now treats individuals or couples mostly with "mild to moderate" symptoms, offering short-term, low-cost counseling. Payment is on a sliding scale based on income; most clients have no insurance and low to moderate incomes.

"Private therapists often can cost anywhere from $120 to $150 for an hour session," said Sheila Lassegard, the center's clinical program manager. "Many people can't afford that if they're having to struggle already to pay for housing, food and car payments. We can offer sessions for $10, or $15, or even free."

The organization now has nearly 100 therapists, about two-thirds of them interns or trainees who work closely with supervisors.

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The Community Counseling Center hopes to move into its new space on Pismo Street this summer. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

More money needed

The new center will move from its current cramped quarters — the lease expires in 2019 — to the new Pismo Street property, which was purchased by the organization.

When completed, the new facility will feature more comfortable, private rooms for patients and a better setup for trainees and interns to collaborate with licensed counselors, administrators say.

Construction is underway, but the nonprofit will need to raise more money to complete the work. The organization is in the midst of a a fundraising campaign to raise $2 million to finance the project and pay for new technology.

The plan is to open this summer, and already Community Counseling received a $500,000 donation this year from Loron C. Cox, a Vietnam veteran who found out about the center's origins and believes in its mission, Statler said.

Irene Iwan, the center's board president, said that funding and resources are perhaps the nonprofit's biggest challenge, along with trying to meet the high demand for service, which outpaces the services it can provide.

"As much as we do, we're serving a small percentage of the people who need help," Iwan said. "We probably could serve 20,000 clients in a year. And that takes money. James Statler has done a remarkable job of expanding our operations and satellite offices (since Statler came on in 2011)."

The center's funding sources include Cen-Cal/Medi-Cal insurance, contracts with schools, fees and private funding.

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James Statler is the executive director of the Community Counseling Center. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Needed service

Dr. Steve Kadin, who works in clinical training with doctoral candidates at the center, said that a trend that he has noticed is a growing problem of social isolation, and center therapists particularly emphasize keeping an eye out for students in schools who might be eating alone or lacking friends.

In worst-case scenarios, those students can become violent toward others or a danger to themselves, Kadin said.

"Nationwide, the levels of isolation have gone up," Kadin said. "It's so important to provide help early before it gets to the point of suicide or bringing a gun or knife to school."

Elie Axelroth, director of counseling, said therapy is often not designed to solve someone's problems but to help them "get unstuck" so they can begin learning how to manage their struggles.

"It's about getting on a path so they can learn to better understand what's going on and where it's coming from," Axelroth said. "They can have pain and distress and not know why."

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