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UHV faculty holds training for community volunteers

For Sneha Nayar-Bhalerao, her counseling skillset is something that should be shared to help as many people as possible. That’s why she and Abran Rodriguez, another University of Houston-Victoria professional counseling faculty member, offered training for child advocates in Victoria.

Sneha Nayar-Bhalerao

Through virtual webinars and workshops, the UHV professional counseling faculty members are helping the volunteers of Golden Crescent CASA. This fall, Nayar-Bhalerao and Rodriguez, both UHV assistant professors of professional counseling, conducted educational seminars for dozens of court appointed special advocates, or CASA volunteers. The seminars focused on mental health with an emphasis on identifying the warning signs of suicide.

“We are passionate about helping people with mental health concerns,” Nayar-Bhalerao said. “This is our way of being able to make a difference in our communities.”

A CASA volunteer supports children and families involved in the child welfare system. The volunteer will spend time with the children and families and gather information from everyone involved with the child’s or children’s life, including family members, foster parents, teachers, lawyers, social workers and any other relevant persons, according to the Golden Crescent CASA website. The volunteers report to a judge to advocate for the child’s or children’s best interests.

Often, a CASA volunteer is a guardian for children who have been removed from their homes, said Mary Lasater, interim associate dean for the UHV School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development. Lasater previously served on the Golden Crescent CASA board of directors, where she served as the board’s vice president for one year and as president for two years before resigning from the board in 2013. She continues to volunteer for the organization on a yearly basis by reviewing Golden Crescent CASA’s strategic plan, which prepares volunteers to work with hundreds of children and families in Victoria, Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Gonzales, Jackson, Lavaca and Refugio counties.

Depending on the situation, a CASA volunteer may serve a family for several years, Lasater said. A key part of advocating for a child’s best interests is also checking on the mental health of the child or children.

Mary Lasater

“One of the objectives for CASA is to make sure the volunteers are trained to address the needs of children who are coming from traumatic situations,” Lasater said. “There is regular training provided to the volunteers so that they may help prevent a tragic situation and help the child or children receive trauma care. The needs are great, and we have so much to offer our community at UHV. Our UHV counseling faculty did not hesitate to offer up their services to help train the volunteers.”

For Suicide Awareness Month in September, Rodriguez gave a presentation for CASA volunteers including basic information about suicide awareness. Nayar-Bhalerao hosted a virtual webinar on Nov. 19 during the lunch hour for volunteers.

Volunteers could be serving a family where a child has had past trauma or is dealing with severe abuse, distress or major depression, so it is important to be able to identify the signs of suicidal ideation and break the cycle of emotional distress, Nayar-Bhalerao said.

For her presentation, Nayar-Bhalerao spoke about understanding suicide and how to create a safety plan for volunteers if they have a situation where a child is thinking of harming themselves. She also spoke about the signs of suicidal thoughts; how to identify intent and if there is a history or means to carry out a suicide; how to provide the child with support and resources; and how to help the child navigate through their feelings so they do not hurt themselves.

The information Nayar-Bhalerao shared with the volunteers is the same work she shares with clients, she said. Nayar-Bhalerao would like to host more sessions for Golden Crescent CASA to help as much as she can.

“The work that Golden Crescent CASA and their volunteers do is so important and meaningful,” she said. “As counselors, it is an honor for us to contribute to people who are with these families and do not have this kind of training. It helps the volunteers to expand their awareness and skillsets to help their clients.”

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region, offers courses leading to more than 65 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and concentrations in the schools of Arts & Sciences, Business Administration, Education & Human Development, and Nursing. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus as well as teaching sites in Fort Bend and Harris counties, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. Since its founding in 1973, UHV has provided students with a quality university education from excellent faculty at an affordable price.