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Mason team helps heal scars from disaster

February 28, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Fred Bemak travels to areas affected by natural disasters as part of his organization Counselors Without Borders. Provided photo.

Fred Bemak remembers all the hugs and tears.

They inevitably come, he said, when his Counselors Without Borders team is on location helping hundreds—sometimes thousands—of people healing from the emotional scars of a disaster.

“It’s the person who is grabbing and hugging you, thanking you for being there,” the George Mason University professor said. “That’s huge.”

For 13 years Counselors Without Borders has traveled the world into areas devastated by floods, wildfires and storms, offering culturally responsive humanitarian counseling in post-disaster situations.

It was created by Bemak, one of 12 educators receiving an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

“Counselors Without Borders is an organization I wish didn’t have to exist,” Bemak said. “We exist because services aren’t being met.”

The organization has helped in places such as Myanmar after a 2008 cyclone, Haiti after the 2010 earthquakes, the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and San Diego after the 2007 wildfires.

Teams are composed of Mason faculty and graduate students. A five-member group leaves in March for Puerto Rico, which was devastated in September by Hurricane Maria.

Heading out with Bemak is Lewis Forrest, MEd Counseling and Development ’05, associate dean for University Life; Ricardo Sanchez, a doctoral student in counseling and development; Jean Agosto, a master’s student in counseling and development; and Mason professor Rita Chi-Ying Chung.

“The media focuses on what people can do [for disaster victims], but people forget about the healing process,” said Chung, Bemak’s wife, who helps run the organization. “That’s why the Puerto Rico trip is so important.”

Most important, Bemak said, is being culturally sensitive to the populations being helped, a sensibility that is a constant in his classes, which run on a foundation of diversity and social justice.

In San Diego, the team went door-to-door to interact with Native Americans who valued privacy in discussing problems associated with the wildfires. In Haiti, sessions were communal. The objective always is the same.

“People want to talk,” Bemak said. “They want some perspective. They want healing.”

“Sometimes it’s just sitting next to someone and not saying anything because they’re not ready to talk,” Chung said. “It’s knowing someone is there who cares.”

Diana Ortiz, MEd Counseling and Development ’08, saw the process with Bemak’s team in San Diego.

“We walked miles every day throughout the immigrant communities and Indian reservations,” she said. “I still carry the lessons with me from that trip. Dr. Bemak’s voice and lessons are engrained in my work as a counselor and leader.”

Guy Cave, managing director of Geneva Global, a philanthropic consulting company that works with charitable organizations and corporations, said Bemak’s team in Myanmar was “enormously helpful” in the aftermath of the storm.

When Counselors Without Borders is on location, colleagues on the ground have already figured out the logistics of food and shelter. Travel expenses come from organizations such as Save the Children and USAID.

Mason’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and Provost’s Office are supporting the Puerto Rico trip.

“We’ll hit the ground running,” Bemak said.

“They’re difference-makers,” said CEHD Dean Mark Ginsberg of Bemak and Chung. “Their work has made them the most highly respected couple in the field of social justice counseling.” 

Lewis Forrest, M.Ed. counseling and development ’05, associate dean for University Life; Rita Chi-Ying Chung, Professor at the Counseling & Development Program; Fred Bemak, professor and academic program coordinator of the Counseling and Development Program; Jean Agosto, a master’s student in counseling and development; and Ricardo Sanchez, a doctorate student in counseling and development are all going to Puerto Rico in March as part of Counselors Without Borders. Photo by Evan Cantwell.