Around a year ago, I made a decision to leave my job as a Clinical Director in Tulsa and start a private counseling practice in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I left Okmulgee around 10 years ago to complete my college education and gain experience in the counseling field. I have established a comfortable life with quality social connections in the Tulsa and Broken Arrow areas. So the question I’m often asked (especially by those in Tulsa) about my choice of office location is “why Okmulgee”?
My standard response is “it’s my hometown” and “I know people there”. While those are accurate responses, they don’t tell the whole story of why I chose to return to Okmulgee. In fact, I sometimes wonder myself if I’m not just a little crazy for not focusing my efforts in Tulsa or Broken Arrow.
The truth about my choice of location is a little more complex than my standard response and requires a little history. I started my career as a counselor working with drug addicts and alcoholics at a treatment center in Grove OK and then in an office in Claremore, OK. I enjoyed working with that population but after a few years, I started noticing the same people coming through the doors. We were helping them get back on track but for some reason they weren’t staying there.
So what was going on? I started to realize the first use of substance use for many of these people was around 12 to 14 years old. Most of them entering treatment were in their mid-30’s. That means many of them have used or abused substances pretty consistently for around 20 years.
I searched the State records to see how many children between age 12 and 18 were receiving treatment and realized what a gap of services there were, not just in Claremore but in nearly every county in Oklahoma. In Okmulgee in particular, only a fraction of the children we expect to have a problem receive counseling.
I also started learning about the impact of trauma and the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. For those that aren’t familiar with it, the ACE study shows a connection between negative experiences in childhood and adult physical and mental health greater than anything else I have ever seen reported.
I suddenly realized that addressing trauma and healing the underlying mental health problems were key to solving the substance related problems that seemed to keep coming back. That’s when the light bulbs started going off and I realized how many of these Adverse Childhood Experiences were present in the lives of many in my hometown. Again, if you’re not familiar with the ACE Study, PLEASE learn more. Once you understand the connection between these experiences and adult health, you will never look at adult health problems in the same way.
I realized I needed to shift from purely substance abuse counseling to addressing the whole person, in particular the mental health problems that are often underlying those problems. It also occurred to me that we could avoid many of the problems I’d been seeing in adults if we could address the trauma and mental health problems when and where they started, instead of 20 years after the fact. If we can identify and treat these families and children who are currently suffering, how much better off would the entire community be 10 or 20 years from now?
Which brings me back to Okmulgee. We’ve all watched the deterioration and poverty that occurred in Okmulgee and many other small towns over the past several decades. With poverty comes increased substance abuse, domestic violence and the many other problems we’re seeing in small towns across the State. I’m not sure which comes first, but there is certainly a reciprocal relationship between economic and social problems.
Anyone who has paid attention in Okmulgee will have noticed a handful of dedicated, visionary (some claim delusional!) people working to revitalize our downtown. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of work underway with even more planned for the years to come. There are a few naysayers, but I believe we’re seeing the beginnings of a renaissance in my hometown. I’m looking forward to seeing the end result of all the hard work and investment.
Okmulgee also has hundreds (probably thousands) of people who would benefit from a “human revitalization” program. Often behind the scenes, many are currently receiving help through local drug court and mental health court programs. But again, how much better would things be if we could prevent these problems before they reach this level?
I was taught that substance abuse and mental health problems have a “ripple effect” throughout families, neighborhoods and communities. I’ve since learned that recovery from these problems can have a similar, positive effect as well. More importantly, these positive changes continue to ripple through time, creating changes throughout communities and over generations.
I want to start this”ripple effect” change in Okmulgee by identifying and helping children who need it. This is my hometown. I grew up here. I learned a lot here (some good, some bad!). I struggled here and eventually was able to thrive as a result of my experiences here. I’m excited to have the opportunity and believe I can make a difference here, one child, one family at a time. While the results may not be measurable on a large scale for many years, I believe they can be significant over time.
An office in Tulsa or Broken Arrow would be convenient. It would probably be profitable and successful. It would also make a difference in the lives of the people who were served. But would it make a difference in a whole community? I’m still working in the Tulsa and Broken Arrow areas while I’m building the practice in Okmulgee. But I hope to be in Okmulgee full-time before the end of the year.
Why? Because I believe a group of dedicated people can change the future of our community. Many of those people are in place and working on the physical revitalization. I want to be a part of the mental and emotional revitalization. I know I can’t do it on my own and will be looking for others to join in this mission. I KNOW there is a need for these services and I KNOW we can make a difference .
Imagine what Okmulgee will look like in 10 or 20 years if we can change the future for children in need. What if we could heal and restore some of the lives in the same manner as our downtown buildings are being brought back to life? Then Okmulgee will truly rise.
For more information on some of the exciting things happening in downtown Okmulgee, check out these pages: