For 33 years, I have called the American Counseling Association my employer. I have been part of so many projects and issues that it is hard to keep track of all that we endeavored to do, were challenged by and accomplished. I use the word “we” because when I think about those projects, it is the people I will remember most — ACA members, volunteer leaders, and an incredible team of current and former staff with whom I have been privileged to work. None of the success, or the solutions we came up with when faced with challenges, was the result of one person — ever. It always involved a team.
Since I announced last July that I would be leaving ACA on June 30, 2022, people have been so kind with their words of thanks for my contributions. I make a point of referencing that it was a team that got us to where we are, it was a team that made me “look good,” and it was a team that will continue to help the incredible people who identify as professional counselors.
If I were to try to thank everyone who worked with me, or to whom I am beholden for their generous gifts of time and advice, I would inevitably miss someone. Over 33 years (including 24 as ACA’s CEO), I have had the honor of working with, learning from and becoming friends with thousands of ACA volunteers and members.
I couldn’t possibly include all that I want to share in one column, so this is the first of a two-part writing “assignment.” It won’t be the proverbial long goodbye so much as it is my reflections on and hopes for the amazing counseling profession.
Counseling is entering a golden age. The groundwork has been laid to allow counselors to work across state lines. We are on the brink of seeing expanded opportunities for counselors to be reimbursed. Given the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for mental health services has never been greater, and counselors will be in higher demand.
Great employment opportunities for counselors have arisen out of the increasing professionalization of counseling and the growing acceptance of mental health services. Some of this recognition has been fueled by celebrities and entertainers, athletes and coaches, the armed services, caring parents, consumer advocacy groups and those serving in the public policy arena. Each of these groups has helped drive ACA’s goal of achieving parity between mental and physical health services. I believe there will be a continuing need to fill the student pipeline in counselor education programs. There is no closing that door.
Among the challenges ahead will be how the counseling profession responds to this growing need. Will we create artificial obstacles that make some counselor education programs “less than” others? Will we become so insular in our definition of professional counseling that some who want to serve are prevented from doing so? Will we find ways to appropriately compensate professional counselors for the work they do? How will we ensure that professional counselors know they are valued and integral to the success of our society?
I like seeing how points in life are connected. My journey to ACA began many years ago, before I even knew there was an ACA. The late Barbara Varenhorst introduced me to the counseling profession. In the early 1970s, she created one of the first “peer counseling” (now known as “peer helper”) programs in the country. She and her colleagues pioneered a program that helped middle and high school students understand how to better communicate with peers, especially those who might be facing challenges. As an early peer counseling volunteer, I witnessed how this program could benefit young people, and it hooked me on the value of counseling.
Fast-forward 20 years to when I was a legislative assistant for a U.S. Congress member. My excitement over working on “the Hill” was tempered by the myriad issues with which we had to deal. If it were not for a dear friend, Nancy Kober, who served on the House Education and Labor Committee, I wouldn’t have known that what was then the American Association for Counseling and Development was looking for a government relations specialist. The position would allow me to focus on issues for which I had a true passion — counseling, education, mental health and social justice.
Despite my fairly “light” résumé, Frank Burtnett, then an associate executive director at ACA, must have seen something in me (or else just didn’t have any other candidates) because he hired me in 1984. I found out much later that he had to answer questions about my somewhat-thin résumé from our boss. I’m glad that he did.
During my “first term” of duty with ACA, I realized that in addition to my love of public policy, I had a great interest in the management of associations. I knew I would have to move on to gain experience in association management, so after six years at ACA, I left in 1990. I greatly missed the people, the volunteer leaders and our members, but this was an important step in my career development.
The phone rang three years later, and Pat Schwallie-Giddis, then working at ACA, enticed me to return to the organization, but this time as an assistant executive director. I was “home again.” Well, not exactly, because the association was facing great turmoil operationally and financially. I am forever grateful to the teams I worked on because despite the challenges, we came up with plans to “right the ship.”
Four years after returning to ACA, an opportunity arose for me to serve as interim executive director. What I thought would be a gig lasting a few months stretched into roughly 18 months. My rising concern about continuing to serve in an “acting” role finally ended when Courtland Lee, at that time serving as ACA president, said the board wanted to offer me the permanent position that I currently hold.
So, here we are almost 24 years later, and I’m still the CEO. But the time has come for me to look at new challenges and step aside so that someone else can bring new energy and new ideas to our association.
Reflecting on my tenure at ACA, I can say there were good days that were rewarding, inspiring and fulfilling. There were other days that were challenging, frustrating or disappointing. But on June 30, I will look back knowing there were many more good days than bad ones. What made the good days so “good” were the people I was blessed to work with at the staff, volunteer, member and leader levels.
As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and thoughts. Feel free to call me at 800-347-6647 ext. 231 or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow me on Twitter: @Richyep. Be well.