Every day, counselors help clients to navigate the challenges that they face in their daily lives. However, there are many people living in the U.S. who would benefit from the sessions that a counselor can provide but are unable to gain access to it for a variety of reasons, whether due to personal finances, time limitations or a lack of knowledge about these professional services. There are a number of needs in most communities that can be met by a counselor who is willing to volunteer his or her time and skills.
Counselors are equipped with the skills and education to contribute in a meaningful way with a variety of organizations. While there are many ways that these professionals can use their professional skills in volunteer settings, here are five specific areas that can benefit from volunteers who work in counseling:
1. Disaster response
From tragedies such as 9/11 to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, it is impossible to predict when the next catastrophe will strike. While first responders typically address the physical needs of individuals affected by the event, these communities also have emotional needs that sometimes are not addressed. That is when volunteer counselors can contribute in an important way.
Tony Colombrito, a trained American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer and member of the American Counseling Association (ACA), arrived in Newtown, Conn., within hours of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012: “When we arrived [at the firehouse]… there were several families, and each family who suffered a loss had a state trooper [with them],” Colombrito told the ACA. “My role was to be a clinician. I felt my obligation was to acclimate myself to the community. My role was to work the crowd, so to speak, touch base with the other first responders and the Ladies Auxiliary [who was also there]. Sometimes we had to take a supportive role, whether it was giving them a pat on the back or telling them a joke.”
Counselors who are interested in helping to respond to disasters should consider contacting their local chapter of the American Red Cross or similar emergency organization. It is not necessary to wait for a disaster to occur. By volunteering their services ahead of time, counselors can be ready to respond as quickly as possible whenever an unexpected tragedy happens.
2. Crisis text line
When people experience personal traumas, they ideally would seek the assistance of a professional counselor. However, that option is not always possible. For a variety of reasons, it may be difficult for a person to meet face to face. While crisis hot lines are not new, some of these services have set up crisis text lines. Now, people who are not comfortable speaking over the phone can text a number and communicate digitally with a volunteer.
One organization, simply called the Crisis Text Line, provides free service 24/7 to anyone across the nation. Volunteers with the group undergo a background check and 34 hours of online training before their first shift to ensure that they are prepared to listen and problem-solve with texters.
While volunteers for these types of groups usually are not required to have professional certification, professionals with a master’s in counseling or similar experience will be particularly well-equipped to respond to the variety of situations that they may encounter when working in these settings.
3. Rape crisis counselor
When a rape occurs, the victim likely will need to be supported by a counselor or other professional during the weeks, months and perhaps years following the event. However, often there is also an immediate need for counseling services that can go neglected. When a person has experienced rape or some other form of sexual assault, he or she is likely not in a place to logically think about finding a counselor and calling the professional to the scene. That type of situation is where rape crisis counselors come in. Volunteers who have gone through a certification program are on call to meet with victims of rape and domestic violence whenever an incident occurs, usually working in conjunction with local law enforcement or health departments.
Training requirements typically vary by state, so interested counselors should work with local organizations to ensure that any guidelines are met.
4. Community center counselor
Working with a counselor can make a huge difference for people, whether they have experienced a major crisis or are simply feeling overwhelmed by a season in their life. However, there are likely many people in your very own community who cannot afford these services. Consequently, many counselors find rewarding volunteer opportunities at community centers and other locations that provide free services to people who live in the area.
If there is not a community center nearby, counselors may want to consider contacting homeless shelters, youth centers and foster and adoption agencies to find out if they have a need for counseling services. Odds are high that the organizations will be truly grateful for the help.
5. Cancer support groups
For many people going through a trauma, addiction, illness or other serious challenge, speaking with others with shared experiences can help make the problems seem more manageable. Consequently, support groups are valuable, as they provide a safe place where people can be real about their struggles and fears. Cancer support groups are a good example. According to the website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, there is a need for cancer survivors and volunteer counselors to lead support groups that help people cope with the disease. Counselors have the skill set to help navigate the emotional challenges that will arise in these settings and can encourage conversations that will benefit not only individuals but the group as a whole.
There are a variety of other support groups you also could consider. You likely will be most effective working with a cause that you are passionate about, whether it is a serious illness, substance abuse, domestic violence or any other form of trauma or addiction.
Interested in becoming a counselor? The online MAC degree through Bradley University is a program that you can trust to prepare you for a successful career in counseling.