Catholic agency not just for Catholics

August 14, 1997

No, you don't have to be Catholic to get counseling from Catholic Charities, Inc. In fact, says Peggy Whyte, the agency's executive director, 70 percent of those served by the group's Washington County operations aren't Catholic.

Catholic Charities' main local office is at 229 N. Potomac St., a house that was once a parsonage and later the headquarters of Family Services, Inc. When that agency fell on hard times and dissolved in June 1995, Catholic Charities was ready immediately to fill the void with many of the same type of services.

"Prior to that we were seeing people in St. Ann's parish center," she said.

The agency has a long tradition of recognizing the dignity of every client, according to White, who notes that in the agency's "Our Daily Bread" soup kitchen in Baltimore, clients aren't served cafeteria-style, but on round, restaurant-style tables with fresh flowers in the center of each one.


However hard their lives are on the outside, Whyte said, "they are reminded during that one period daily that they are still people."

Locally, the agency provides counseling services Monday through Thursday in Hagerstown and on Saturday at locations in Williamsport and Hancock. But even though the agency is supported by local Catholic parishes and the United Way, counseling isn't free, but if you don't have a large income, it is cheap.

"We charge on a sliding scale, sometimes as little as $1 per session," Whyte said, adding that some fee is necessary because even with the help of Catholic Charities' central office, the United Way and the parishes, there are other costs to cover.

So how does the process work?

Whyte said that when people call for help, a receptionist takes their name and phone number so a staff member can call them back to do an intake interview.

Among other things, clients are asked if they've been in-patients at any mental-health facility, whether they're receiving help from other agencies, how big their family is, and how much money family members make.

If the client is seeing another mental-health professional, Whyte said they're encouraged to finish that treatment. If not, they're put on a waiting list - "in chronological order," Whyte says - to see a counselor.

Every counselor has at least a master's degree, she said, and there are a variety of treatments offered.

"There are groups, including a group for married couples, as well as individual treatments," she said.

But Catholic Charities is not for the patient who needs long-term psychiatric care. Whyte said patients stay in counseling for just six to eight sessions.

"We try not to do much long-term, and in that way we are able to see more cases," she said.

While patients are in the agency's care, however, "they work with the counselor to find out what their problems are and set goals for improving them," she said.

That doesn't mean they're discouraged from returning after the treatment is completed, Whyte said, adding that if their problems recur in the future, "they're welcome to come back."

Is there a 'typical' case?

The typical client (or at least 75 percent of them) comes from a family with an income of under $15,000 a year. Other than that, "We see everything," Whyte said.

"Very often we have a family come in because their marriage is very conflicted," Whyte said. Family problems are often compounded because one partner has a serious problem with drugs or alcohol.

If a patient requires medication or care beyond what the agency's people can provide, they're referred to Dr. Matthew Wagner, a psychiatrist with works with Catholic Charities.

According to an agency profile prepared by Whyte, "typical customers" the agency has handled include:

- a 26-year-old traveling salesman who developed a phobia regarding car trips and heavy traffic because his father was killed in a drive-by shooting.

- a 55-year-old machinist who had experienced depression after being laid off from the job he had held for 30 years, and

- An unmarried couple with two small children. This family is having problems because the husband wants to return to his home in the Appalachians, where he would be near his ex-wife's family.

The setting for the counseling done in Hagerstown is a large old home that was recently renovated during the United Way's annual "Day of Caring" volunteer activity. Lots of windows let plenty of light into the high-ceilinged rooms, their walls bright with donated prints and other artwork. Though the home is one on of downtown's busiest streets, surprisingly little noise bounces back to the house from the busy street. It's a soothing place that provides help to hundreds of community residents reach year.

If you'd like to help this agency, or you need help yourself, call (301) 733-5858.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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