Rhonda David | Therapy for those in need

Rhonda David, MS, LMFT, of Camarillo, has always been prone to sobbing uncontrollably when watching the film character Bambi lose his mother. For a long time, she perceived the compassion that led her to tears as a weakness; but now, she hopes that it provides her with insight into the needs of others and believes that it compels her to try to find ways to help.

In 1996, she became a licensed marriage and family therapist; and in 2016, she opened Deep Life Solutions (DLS) in Camarillo, where she serves as president and executive clinical director. DLS operates on donations and offers counseling and community outreach that is provided by volunteer clinicians and administrators, including her daughter, Laurissa Jean Miller, who works as program director. The facility caters to both youth and adults, with sessions for families, couples and children. In the last two quarters of 2017, DLS served approximately 75 clients.

“Our goal is to make sure no one suffers alone. Please come to DLS for help, but if you don’t want to come to us we encourage you to reach out to someone somewhere. We want to convey the message of hope and renew the belief in each other as avenues for healing together. We are stronger together,” David said.

She noted that she has often heard from patients over the years about the belief that if mental illness is ignored, it will go away or “get smaller.” She aims to overcome such misconceptions through DLS, admitting that while the stigma of mental illness can be a significant hindrance to the organization’s mission and objectives, it is determined to provide the best care it can.

“When I began this journey over 25 years ago, I was trained to help the client learn symptom management based on standard diagnostic criteria. Although this perspective is still very important, in the last decade or so we have done more research on the deeper effects of trauma and discovered new treatments that can actually expel a great deal of these effects out of the body and mind, never to return,” explained David.

These new treatments include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, brainspotting, neuro-biofeedback and neuro-linguistic programming. As far as the efforts in local mental health care, David counts herself lucky to work among many extremely hardworking people whom she considers as creating a positive and lasting effect in people’s lives.

“I am grateful to be involved in the field of behavioral science. But my concern is, service providers don’t always unite and work as a team. They keep to themselves and don’t collaborate. We need more collaboration and teamwork. I sometimes even see competition amongst providers. I don’t believe there is a place for this. It takes away from our true purpose, which is serving others,” she said.

DLS also serves others through community outreach including volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club by offering psycho-education, and having recently consulted with the psychiatric staff at Cal State University, Channel Islands, to further develop workshops and services to support the students. The organization intends to launch “Deep Steps,” a program that operates on the 12-step format, to help veterans and their families with the stress of reentry, family adjustment and PTSD.

Meanwhile, David revealed, she still has considerable aspirations for DLS, which began with two counselors and two volunteers and now has five counselors and two licensed supervisors; the plan is to double its numbers of clients served this year.

The donation-based organization is currently searching for a new office space that is not only more affordable but has more space for its groups. Also, as believers in animal and equine therapy, DLS is looking for partners to join in developing a program with this specialty and hopes to help enrich the community by hosting family-fun events in the future.

David looks forward to “a collaboration of many agencies and volunteers making a difference for the betterment of mental health in our community, thereby reducing the effects of public and private violence, creating a stronger, safer and more connected society.”

For more information, visit www.deeplifesolutions.org

Jillian Abbott-Gonzalez | Empowered youth

Jillian Abbott-Gonzalez, 12, of Camarillo, dreams of being a part of Broadway, both off and on stage. The theater is a passion and it has been instrumental in strengthening her voice and nurturing her spirit.

At the age of 7, Jillian told her mother, Heather, about ongoing sexual assault by her uncle, describing it as “yucky” and asking for it to stop. She had not been the only victim of the predator who had been abusing children for decades; her confession led to his arrest and incarceration.

Jillian made the decision to share her experience, and she often does so, especially among her peers at special events, assemblies, etc., or individually with those who have approached her with their own stories.

In her opinion, opening up the conversation about this perhaps uncomfortable but important topic is a critical step toward finding ways for people to recognize signs of sexual assault, end the shaming of victims, and hopefully put an end to the abusive behavior altogether.

The seventh-grader is intent on letting other youth who may be in the same situation know that they are not alone and, most importantly, that it is not their fault.

“Kids don’t tell because they feel ashamed or at fault, because it’s scary and kids don’t usually understand what’s happening to them as most of the time it’s someone they trust. You need to speak up and tell, let your voice be heard,” Jillian said.

Heather agrees with her daughter, and while she wishes that it was all a nightmare that never happened, she and her family are proud of their “Princess.”

“Some people think we are crazy for letting her be in the public eye. However, she wants to do this. She wants to turn her story from a victim to a survivor. If her story helps one little girl or boy, then it is worth everything to us. All of us are on the journey with her; her brothers, her sister, we all want to bring this out of the darkness and stop shaming victims,” explained Heather.

Mother and daughter are involved with VOICES of Ventura County, a group comprising women who are survivors of violence and abuse, dedicated to spreading awareness and supporting one another and victims.

Last year, the Abbott-Gonzalez family launched the Camarillo Junior Theatre (CJT), a children’s theater company, as a continuous means of empowerment for their daughter and others. They hope to be able to give a voice to as many children as possible.

Jillian is excited to star as Sharpay this summer in CJT’s production of High School Musical. She is grateful to her parents for immediately believing her and for their continued support. In turn, she looks forward to her life ahead, as well as to giving some form of help to those who may be victims of sexual abuse.

“He may have taken away my childhood, but thanks to my parents, he will not take away my future,” she said.

Vanessa Webster-Smith | Foster parent, giving friend

Vanessa Webster-Smith of Camarillo is a busy woman who is trying to live as her mother did, by helping everyone, no matter the circumstance.

She is the director of campus services at California Lutheran University and she is also a foster parent, a role that she embraced more than a decade ago to help continue the actions of a good friend who had died.

Over the years, Webster-Smith has fostered, through the Ventura County Human Services Agency, more than 50 children ranging from days old up to 17 years old; children are in her care for a month to a year or more.

“The most rewarding thing is helping a child see their inner beauty and watching them succeed. The most challenging is seeing so many broken youth who are so disengaged and broken. But once you give them the right foundation they begin to grow and flourish. They just need guidance and love,” she explained.

It was one of those challenging moments that led her to adoption. She recalled that one of her foster children, Mario, came to her emotionally drained and with a fractured arm and leg.

“I never thought I would adopt. But once my kids were with me I knew they were mine. It’s like it was meant to be. You just know,” she said, and noted that Mario proceeded to accomplish remarkable things.

Webster-Smith reports that she is still in contact with many of her foster children, stating that it means a lot to her when they call to say hello or ask for advice. Essentially, helping others is her priority.

And that priority is how she also quickly welcomed her colleague Dennis, into her home. When a kidney infection left him unable to care for himself, Webster-Smith took him in.

“Dennis is a part of my family. He is like a grandparent to my family. I coordinate his entire doctor and physical therapy appointments, make sure he is eating correctly, monitor his breathing machines and medication, make sure he is always looked after so he does not fall or injure himself. He goes on family vacations and events. He is treated like family, not like a patient or someone who is being looked after,” she said.

Usually, Webster-Smith is responsible for six people in her household at any given time, although that number does grow from time to time.

On a typical day, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m., checks on Dennis, prepares the children for school, gets ready for work, does some chores, takes the children to school, ensures that Dennis and his caretaker have everything they need. Then she goes to work. Later she picks up or drops off kids to/from activities, checks on Dennis, oversees dinner, dishes, medication distribution, showers, laundry, small chores and then off to bed.

She may be busy but Webster-Smith is more focused on how her time positively impacts others. “I just aspire to be a good person; that’s all that I can be.”

For more information, visit www.fostervckids.org

Erika Harding | Sheriff’s Posse

Erika Harding of Ventura disclosed that she does not “do idle well.” So the hairstylist and owner of Ventura’s ArchiTexture Salon endeavors to spend her time constructively.

One of her biggest inspirations was her brother, who passed away from HIV/AIDS in 1992; he volunteered unwaveringly until he was physically unable to do so.

“I figure it’s better for me to be helping others and contribute to society and my community than to waste any of the little precious time we have here on this planet,” she said.

Harding serves with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Posse (Posse), a group of people who volunteer their time, horses and equipment in support of the sheriff through a range of details such as search and rescue, support of mounted sworn deputies (patrolling the Ventura County Fair, concerts, Conejo Valley Days, Fourth of July, etc.), and representing the sheriff in other capacities for public relations purposes (schools, parades, etc.).

While the time she offers is dependent on demand as well as the needs of her business, Harding stated that serving with her horse (“my closest companion”) as a representative of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office is an experience that brings her joy. Moreover, the skills that she has acquired and honed are invaluable.

“We have extensive, ongoing trainings that have not only made me a better rider, but also a better human.  We are lucky that the Sheriff’s Department has invested so much time in training us,” she explained.

During the Thomas Fire, the Posse assisted Ventura County Animal Services with animal evacuations. Although the ranch where Harding boarded her horse was badly affected, it was able to evacuate most of the horses; and despite the loss of 50 head of cattle, the cattle foreman and his family were able to save all the structures and the remaining horses.

The fire missed Harding’s business, ArchiTexture Salon, by a handful of blocks so she opened her doors to those who may be in need, offering hot coffee, complimentary shampoo/blow-dry, phone charging and respite.

This was not the first time that Harding offered free services at her salon. For at least two decades, she has provided free makeovers/wig styling to cancer patients and those on chemotherapy treatments. She cannot recall if it was a hair donation for a wig or a client going through chemotherapy that motivated her to offer the service but she is certain that it is an honor to be able to provide assistance to clients during what can be a difficult transition.

“I try to make it as smooth as possible. Then as the hair grows back in, it is often much different than before. I will do color and haircuts for them until we have a good, healthy head of hair back,” said Harding.

Some of her contributions over the last year include volunteer and donation efforts during Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Rosa Fire, organized by her friend Loanne Wullaert. Encouraged by the tireless endeavors of chefs Jason Collis and Tim Kilcoyne, Harding volunteered with Chef Jose Andres’ L.A. Kitchen to feed first responders and those displaced by the fires and mudslides. She also worked with the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade after the mudslide and,due to the fires, Harding decided to become a platelet donor.

For more information, visit www.vcsd.org/volunteers.php

Lorin Linder, Matthew Simmons | Helping vets with rescue animals

With a commitment to support both veterans and rescue animals, Lorin Lindner, PhD, MPH, and Matthew Simmons started the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center (LARC) in Northern Ventura County. It would benefit both parties when work was offered to veterans as well as the treatment of mental health using animal therapy.

Lindner, the president of LARC and Serenity Park, is a clinical psychologist whose appreciation for psychoanalysis has only intensified since the days when she would read Freud from behind her sixth-grade reader, hoping that the teacher wouldn’t find out. During her career, she began a program overseeing veterans affected by trauma and tending to rescue parrots at a sanctuary; and a decade ago, she and Simmons opened LARC.

Simmons, her husband and chief operating officer of LARC and Serenity Park, is a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a petty officer for two years of active duty and six years of inactive duty. His exit from the military left him with a sobering reality that fuels the work he shares with Lindner.

“I needed help with recognizing that there was even a problem I might face; I didn’t even have a debriefing. They just walked me off the plane. Knowing the signs and symptoms of stress-related disorders would have gotten me into treatment sooner,” Simmons stated.

According to Lindner, the stigma attached to mental health is not only about the problems but about the treatments designed to address them. She noted that not all group therapies are appropriate for all veterans; hence LARC’s endeavor to offer support based on the common ties that unite many veterans as well as the particular needs of each individual.

“Animals get right past the defenses, they do not stop at ‘Go’ — they go straight to our hearts. We grew up with animals both individually as children and also ecologically as a species; animals are inextricably tied to our well-being,” explained Lindner. “The big difference at our programs is that the animals are in need as well. They are also suffering from traumatic stress disorders, so that actually helps the veterans want to care for them and understand them better. They both suffer from the same stresses,” she added.

The Parrot C.A.R.E. and Warriors and Wolves programs at LARC assist veterans through what Simmons described as a “Band of Brothers” approach. Veterans enrolled in the latter are also offered a family reunification program, which helps nurture their roles in the lives of their loved ones and reunite them through the aforementioned pack approach, which is adapted from wolves.

Although LARC rescues and nurtures various animals, wolves seemingly play an integral role. Simmons started the WolfGuard, a work therapy program that employs 10 to 20 veterans a year and aims to monitor and protect the wolf from an increase in hunting.

To participate in the LARC program, veterans must be clean and sober for six months verified by program enrollment at the VA or a fellowship program. While it typically lasts six to 12 months, ultimately, program duration is determined based on an individual’s needs.

Simmons acknowledged that wolves scare people and that the fear is ingrained into society. Nonetheless, he is intent on conveying the fact that the hunting of wolves impacts every animal on land in North America.

“If you enjoy a healthy environment you should support the wolf. Wolves are essential for a healthy ecosystem. The fact is, the wolves and wolfdogs in our care are loving creatures, just like your dog, and want belly rubs. Those that don’t, we don’t allow contact with. And the veterans benefit greatly from the relationships they have with these animals, as do the animals,” he said.

So what does success at LARC look like?

Animals re-create packs and flocks that they may have missed for years (or decades in the case of parrots), which allows them to live a more natural, fulfilled life rather than one in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, veterans retain permanent employment, housing, reunification with family, and they stay clean and sober.

Lindner believes that Ventura County, with organizations like Gold Coast Veterans, is now taking positive steps to help veterans. Furthermore, the VA health-care centers (nationally) are more prepared and are providing up-to-date services, especially for women, and current evidence-based practices are being implemented.

“However, innovative treatments like equine therapy and other animal-based therapies, as well as other innovations that help veterans, are not getting enough attention and funding. We have a long waiting list with veterans I worry about every day because they feel like we are ‘the last house on the block’ for them, but we do not have the funding to hire them. We pay our veterans for this work therapy as we don’t believe they should have to volunteer their services again,” she concluded.

Simmons added that veterans still need and seek understanding and compassion from their community.

“They [veterans] need a flexible work schedule so they can attend their PTSD groups and medical appointments without being penalized by employers. Health care that is available without having to go to a V.A. hospital since many veterans prefer to live outside of cities where most services exist. Right now the waiting times to see a physician affiliated with the V.A.’s Tricare program are unacceptable.  Also, many physicians will not accept the low fees offered by the V.A. to see veterans so the vets have to look farther and farther from home for medical care,” he said.

Each year, the couple hosts the Veterans’ Day Extravaganza with the help of Metabolic Studio and Operation Gratitude. For the past seven years, the event has been held at the West L.A. V.A. and attracts 5,000 to 7,000 veterans and their families. Attendees are provided with meals and gift giveaways and, through the Westside Food Bank, grocery giveaways.

Lindner and Simmons aim to do more. They want to offer housing and long-term employment, with Lindner citing those as the signatures of successful integration back into society.

“Current funding limitations restrict the number of veterans enrolled in the program and potential housing we can provide. If the permitting process was more streamlined we could provide housing more quickly for veterans in need. We would like to build cabins for the veterans and we need funding and resources for that. We have plenty of space,” said Simmons.

For more information, visit www.lockwoodarc.org