When Oakcrest school nurse and alumna Laura O’ Neill (Oakcrest Class of 1996) traveled to Romania for two weeks in July with Divine Mercy University’s Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies, it was a life-changing experience. Along with fellow DMU graduate students and counselors, Laura spent two weeks doing counseling work with gypsies and impoverished Romanians who had either survived or witnessed trauma of various kinds.
The seeds of this trip were planted long before Laura even joined Divine Mercy University. Before working at Oakcrest, she was the school nurse at a diocesan high school for seven years. While there, she realized that many students who did not feel well at school were not, in fact, ill, but instead wrestling with their thoughts and feelings. Laura wanted a deeper understanding of the human person, and so began a Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at DMU in 2017. The more courses she took, the more interested she became in the impact of trauma and adverse childhood events on resiliency and adult functioning. She decided to connect with the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies (operating out of DMU) and enroll in its course to become a Certified Traumatologist. One of the requirements for certification was a 100-hour supervised internship. To help students meet this requirement, DMU planned a trip to Romania for the graduate students and counselors to train in trauma.
The group spent two weeks doing counseling work primarily with gypsies and poor Romanian people who had either survived trauma, particularly sexual trauma, or witnessed the trauma of communism. Students went out each day in teams of four and rotated through different sites including gypsy villages, homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, nursing homes, a prison, several schools, and homes. Translators fluent in Romanian and Romani (the gypsy language) accompanied each team so the students could speak with everyone they encountered.
Laura points to one particular day that was a highlight of her experience. She spent time with several people in a homeless shelter and had five back-to-back one-hour counseling sessions. During these sessions, she was surprised by the dominant theme of most conversations: work. Getting a job, stories of previous employment, and planning to be able to work in the future was the main focus. “I had previously assumed that homeless people were too mentally ill to hold down employment, or had given up hope on finding work, or just did not want to work,” she says. “Those scenarios certainly exist. However, it was very beautiful listening to the sincere desire to work, and be creative, as St. Josemaria says, ‘work is man’s original vocation.’”
At the end of each day, Laura and her fellow students had two-hour debriefings to process their thoughts and feelings about the stories they’d heard and the work they did. Laura describes how she began thinking about results in counseling, and whether merely being present to another person could have any measurable effect.
She concludes, “The idea of cathedral building came to mind, mainly because we flew through Paris on the return leg of the trip…it was ever present in my mind on our trip to Romania. When I looked up at Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, listening to the guide share about how many hundreds of years it took to build, tears came to my eyes. Most, or nearly all, of the men that labored to construct the cathedral, would have known that they would never live to see it completed. Each layer of brick had to be laid carefully, delicately, by human hands. As the generations passed, the cathedral grew upwards towards the heavens, and yet the finished product would only be visible to the very tiny percentage of those that were there at the end. The vast majority of workers had to persevere, knowing that their daily work was aimed at glorifying God and that they would, in the mercy of God, look down on the finished product from Heaven. That is precisely how I view the work of counseling. The role I play in the life of a client may be truly significant, but for others I may only be like one small brick, laid carefully, creating balance or stability in a small way. With my ‘clients’ in the homeless shelter in Romania, I pray my presence was a small but solid brick of encouragement in their lives, as they journey towards Heaven. I now realize that seeing the ‘finished product’ in a client will be rare, if ever, over my career. I am satisfied with that idea. I am working to glorify God, and I want my talents to be in His service. The finished product will be seen, God-willing, from Heaven.”