By Christopher Oak Reinier

Melissa Fike, MFT, received a Masters Degree in Education with a focus in Counseling and Consulting Psychology from Harvard. After moving to San Diego, she earned a Masters Degree in Counseling from San Diego State, obtained a Marriage and Family Therapist  license, and worked with troubled youth in Southern California. In 1990 she moved to Sonoma County. She had purposely searched the State for the place where she wanted to live, and found it here.

She continued her work with youth through non-profit agencies and the Sonoma County Mental Health Department, doing clinical work and managing counseling programs with foster children, emotionally disturbed youth, and teen clinics. The teen clinics were early experiments for her in peer to peer management and counseling. These programs are designed to have teens participate in managing the services, being responsible for their own mutual support and personal growth.

In 2010, moving from work with youth to work with elders, Melissa joined the Family Services Agency which later merged with West County Community Services. She became the WCCS Director of Senior Adult Counseling, and now manages a collaborative grant to address depression in seniors and directs the Senior Peer Counseling Program, assisted by co-worker Vicki Wedegaertner.  Both programs are supported by Sonoma County Behavioral Health with funding through the Mental Health Services Act.

Along with her management responsibilities, Melissa’s focus is on the recruitment and training of some 35 volunteer senior peer counselors for the Peer Counseling program. She finds seniors who “want to give back”, want to explore the issues of aging, are good listeners, and have a compassionate heart. Then she engages them in 35 hours of training over a fourteen week period.

The training focuses on how to help seniors struggling with issues of aging to shift their perspectives to a better place. Seniors are especially vulnerable to loss. They live with the passing of mates, friends and family, the loss of their independence, good health, the ability to drive a car, and so on.  Peer counselors, with similar experiences, offer a supportive ear, and the encouragement to face and come to terms with the losses, and to live more comfortably with the new “normal” of their current life.

The Peer Counseling program is highly respected. As one client has written: “I was very pleased with my peer counselor who was clearly well trained, deeply compassionate and professional.  Her kindness and insightfulness were most welcome at this difficult moment in my life. Thank you!” Or another has responded: “It could not have been better, more professional or helpful.  I was thoroughly impressed and felt heard in a very safe, professional and caring manner.  I fully trusted my counselor and her process & guidance.  This does not come easily to me.  I felt that I could be totally honest.”

Counselors learn to trust the value of their involvement and to avoid expectations of “success” by fixing or changing a person’s situation.  Such expectations can cause them to become “fix-it” minded, and get in the way of their listening, simply being there as peers. For twelve weeks they provide once a week counseling for an hour with a client in the client’s home.  Closure and saying goodbye to clients after this period of work together can be hard, but is necessary.

One purpose of this clear ending is to make the twelve weeks a time in which the client can gain confidence in his or her ability to improve their own quality of life. Knowing there is an end to the counseling process, the client cannot expect to be dependent on the counselor.  During the twelve weeks with the counselor, the client has the opportunity to tell their story, to be heard and valued.  S/he can begin gaining perspective and better emotional balance, while also learning to be self-sufficient in doing so.

There are Peer-led senior groups, supervised by Melissa and Vicki, to which clients can be referred if they feel they need support after the individual counseling sessions have ended.

One of the many benefits of the Peer Counseling program is the companionship and support that the counselors themselves receive from their fellow counselors. The counselors meet twice each month to compare notes, share struggles and successes, and learn more about the most helpful ways to interact with their clients.  They face and share their own issues about aging with one another, making them more able to be present for the struggles of their clients.

Melissa takes great pleasure in her work overseeing and coordinating the activities of this “family” of volunteer counselors. She has found the place where she loves to live and the work she loves to do. And many people are living better lives because of it.