When thinking about what an ATC Supportive Services Counselor does, it’s hardly ever a list of cut-and-dry duties. While no two days are the same in the role of supporting individuals experiencing the challenges of housing instability, what remains constant is how we root our care in non-judgemental and unconditional support.
The ATC counselor who patiently entertained some of my questions was Valerie McEntee. Valerie has plenty of experience in this space and sat down to share some of the unique things that set ATC apart when it comes to our practice and approach with the individuals we work with:
Q: Tell me a little about your background?
I’ve been doing outreach and counseling work over the last 15+ years now. I’ve always felt called to this kind of work. This is where I belong. Back when I began in ministry, I always had this notion that I had to be a parish pastor first before I could do this type of work well. Still, as I finished seminary, I started volunteering with unhoused individuals and eventually began working in this space. I’ve worked in a variety of ministry settings and loved it, but when I separated from my last position and found I could make a living working with unhoused folks or doing ministry, but not both. if I was going to make a living. I knew I belong working with unhoused folks. Someone recommended At The Crossroads, I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad they decided to give me a chance.
Q: What’s one of the things that has surprised you working as an At The Crossroads counselor?
At The Crossroads is one of the first nonsecular nonprofits I have worked for, which in my mind was a shift. But what I noticed early on here is that ATC walks the talk. Just about every organization says a lot of the same things about being ‘client-centered’ and ‘trauma informed’ but few that I’ve seen actually practice that way. In a new setting, in the back of my mind, I’m always looking around thinking, “Okay what needs to be fixed? What are we not doing right here when it comes to providing care to individuals who have faced a lot of trauma?” But the intentionality we have behind our programs at At The Crossroads was such a surprising and refreshing realization.
One of the things I am very big on in this kind of work is trauma-informed care. At the core of trauma-informed care is client choice and control. And It’s what we emphasize here at ATC so well. And we don’t really talk about it in that way or call it that, but our fundamentals and principles of training and how we interact with individuals we work with, that’s exactly what we’re doing. One of the reasons trauma is traumatic is because you lose choice and control. There’s no situation where you have the choice and control that’s going to end up being traumatic. As much as you can give back choice and control, it makes it very healing for trauma. The fact that our mission is rooted in that philosophy, and practices it in actuality, makes it easy to support our clients well.
Q. How has your experience as an ATC counselor differed from previous experiences?
It’s the intentionality we have about everything we do. Our counseling team talks through countless situations in our program meetings, brainstorming different ways to be present and helpful in providing this feeling of choice and control to every individual we work with. And because of that, when we are with that client or that individual we’re working with, we’re in that zone and that space. All of us become focused on making sure that it’s a client-led session. “What are their goals? What are their ideas to achieve it?”
When someone sets a goal for themself and can identify the path to that goal, instead of someone else doing it on their behalf, it creates an environment where they are MUCH more likely to succeed. It’s not my job to supply an answer; people will come up with their own answers if given a little space to think it through with someone. And I LOVE this about ATC. We don’t set expectations for our clients. Many organizations say they are client-centered and throw those phrases around, but in honesty, there aren’t a lot of organizations that operate where clients have as much choice and control as ATC offers. There are many good-hearted people in these organizations, but what usually happens, and we see it all the time, is that regardless of the people who want to help, the system ends up serving the system. Unfortunately, the individuals we serve are often de-prioritized when that happens.
So far, in my almost two years here, through this deep intentionality and how we’re set up, I haven’t seen us get caught up in that model. I’ve seen us twist, turn, and bend to ensure we remain client-centered in the support we provide. It’s a reason why many clients who come to ATC for support don’t end up utilizing other services. Just like you or myself, they don’t want to be told what to do or be forced down a particular path. These are individuals who deserve to have their own autonomy, regardless of their income levels.
Q: What do you enjoy most about this work?
We have this horizontal governance structure that has been put in place. The team constantly meets and is encouraged to provide feedback and input to other departments, from counselors to the Executive Director. It’s so non-hierarchal here. It gives us a lot of transparency across teams and the organization. It also frees us to think creatively about things that we want to accomplish or projects we want to do. It’s one of the healthiest nonprofits I’ve ever worked for!
I’m fully supported in giving good care here, and it’s very refreshing. I don’t have arbitrary metrics to abide by. And I feel fully supported before, during, and after each session with our clients. Every time we go on counseling sessions, outreach etc… we immediately have a chance to debrief with supervisors or other counselors.
If an organization doesn’t take care of your staff, they won’t be able to care for your clients. And what’s sad to see a lot of times is that people who are drawn to this work will usually get sucked into the fallacy that “if you really care about our clients, you’ll be willing to work tons of overtime and take crappy pay and so on,” when what that really does is just create poor client care and burnout. ATC takes good care of the staff, encourages us to take good care of ourselves, and that leads to much better client care.
Q. What do you see for the future of ATC?
What’s neat about ATC is it’s designed to help give people who have lived experience opportunities to work in this field. You don’t have to have an MDIV, MSW, MFT, or any of that to get hired. Lived experience, a willingness to learn, and a motivation to help and provide care will get you in the door. We’ve seen multiple counselors come through this program and pursue paths like going back to school to become a therapist etc… So the idea that this space is like an incubator for talent is cool! I love knowing that individuals who go on to do great things beyond ATC will always have that ATC ethos lens. It gives me a lot of hope that we’re building a community that can go out and call bullshit on some of the current practices that we know are wrong that are out there.
I came here with a master’s degree, a year of postgrad, and a ton of experience, and I have learned a lot since I started. ATC’s model has so much to offer, and I’d love to see how we can help shape how other institutions provide care and support to those who need it most.