AHW Volunteer Spotlight: Vanessa Hernandez, Alameda County, CA Chapter
When Vanessa Hernandez was assigned her A Home Within client over four years ago, she was met with some hesitancy. Anna* was 13 at the time and had already had several therapists. Many foster youth, needing free services or a sliding scale, are matched with interns, as Anna was. Once the internship ends, the therapeutic relationship also ends. Anna had made a good connection with the last therapist she had. “So once the counselor left, she didn’t really want to start the process again,” Vanessa says. “The starts and stops can be difficult.”
Fortunately, Vanessa managed to convince Anna to give her a chance. “The idea that I could tell her that I was going to be her counselor until she decided to not come to counseling anymore was really important,” says Vanessa. They both had to navigate getting to know each other. “Teenagers put you through it. I’m just another adult to them,” she says. “They think ‘Should I trust you? Why should I trust you?’ Teenagers can see right through you. And that’s what I like—you don’t get an automatic pass. You have to work through it. Once you do make that connection, there is so much you can do.”
In order to build that connection, Vanessa got creative. She and Anna started by setting up various board games during each session. Once they landed on Monopoly, they stuck with it. “We played Monopoly for probably four years straight. It’s a long game. We would play Monopoly and just talk to each other,” says Vanessa. “And at the end of the session I would take a picture of the board so we knew our place. We had a running score. The idea that something continued every week was important. Sometimes we would set up the game and not even play. We would just talk. But Anna always knew what to expect. There was a sense of permanency there.”
Vanessa receives support for her work with her client in her weekly A Home Within consultation group with other Volunteer Clinicians. “Consultation groups give us a chance to talk about our cases, and they are pretty complicated cases. It’s really nice to get input from these really great therapists,” she says. “Being a therapist, especially in private practice, can be so isolating. Even more so with the pandemic. The consultation groups have continued virtually and it has been so helpful to discuss what we are doing with all of our clients, even beyond A Home Within. What we do in our groups has helped me become a better therapist.”
Vanessa has had to adjust her practices during the pandemic. “The work that I need to do now is more with the family to support Anna. I see her mother, but I also still have time in place for my client,” says Vanessa. At this point she feels like she is “a fixture in their family, and I have been for some time. I have been involved with big life decisions regarding her life. You don’t usually get this experience with your clients unless you see them for a long time.”
Vanessa hopes the adaptations therapists and clients have had to make during the pandemic serve to broaden the idea of what therapy can be. “It doesn’t just need to be going to the therapist’s office,” she says. “We can see each other through FaceTime or other online methods, going to backyards, and even going on walks. Being flexible means we can reach more people from different groups.”
Vanessa’s volunteer work with A Home Within has been valuable to her client and herself. “The most unique part about A Home Within is that it is pro-bono and for however long the client wants,” she says. “It is common for A Home Within clients to be unsure if we are going to be there for them long-term because they have made connections and lost them in the past. So just the idea that we are offering to be their therapists for as long as they want—that it’s in their control, not ours—is so unique.”
Vanessa Hernandez grew up in Pittsburg, California, she moved to Oakland over 20 years ago and has remained there since. Vanessa attended Saint Mary’s University in Moraga, California for both her undergraduate degree in Organizational Psychology and her master’s in counseling.
*The name and some identifying details have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.