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Staff Insights

Overcoming Differences and Prioritizing Self-Care at Casa Alitas

By Dana Mach, Strategic Partnerships Officer
Published October 18, 2023

Dana Mach, CVT strategic partnership officer, met with Juli Smith Clark, the clinical supervisor for Proyecto Mariposa, our partnership in Tucson, Arizona with Casa Alitas – a welcome center that provides temporary shelter for those in transition after leaving their home countries.

‘Alitas’ means ‘little wings’ in Spanish and we chose the word ‘mariposa’ – which means ‘butterfly’ in Spanish – to represent the care we could offer those in transition and the ways survivors grow from having little wings to becoming butterflies as they build their new lives.  

During their chat, Dana talked with Juli about her experience in this clinical role and the importance of connection and self-care.

Q: What is the structure of the programs and groups you lead?

Juli: I like to think about my job in three parts. Generally speaking, a third of my role is to supervise our two case managers and the masters of social work (MSW) intern for our destination case management — which is about six months of case management in the destination where the guests are going.

We hope to meet them here while they’re at the shelter (it doesn’t always work out that way because of their travel plans), and then we follow them for about six months, so a third of my role is to supervise that.

Another third of my role is my clinical work, which is the group that I run once a week here at the Welcome Center, and in the future, hopefully, [it will also include] one on one sessions with guests while they’re here and once they’ve gotten to their destination.

The third part of my role is around staff support, providing clinical social work consultations, emotional support, and then running the resilience training. There’s about 100 staff now and a very large volunteer network, so this part of my role is dedicated to making sure they can stay in this job, don’t get burnt out, and that they have tools to understand the secondary trauma they are likely experiencing.

Q: What drew you to this work and to this population that you’re working with?

Juli: I started learning Spanish when I was in high school, and I’m stubborn so I decided that I wanted to be fluent. I took a job in Mexico while I was in college, studied abroad in a program in Chile, and then moved to Guatemala after I graduated and worked there for a couple years.

I fell in love with the language and the people and the culture of Central America and South America. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that — I simply found work that was super interesting to me. Once I moved back to the U.S., I wanted to continue working with Latinx populations within the U.S., and I went back to school for my Masters of Social Work in a program that specifically had a dedicated program where our classes were in Spanish and it was geared toward Latinx [people]. That’s pretty much all I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve been lucky to only do that.

Q: What’s your favorite part about this work?

Juli: My favorite part of my current job is the group that I lead. It’s really nice to see isolation get broken down kind of right before your eyes, connections being made between countries, between experiences, and between life circumstances.

People are all immigrating to the U.S. for different reasons, but to see the threads of commonality is such a powerful experience. To be able to help people understand that what they’re feeling is not unique to them, they’re not losing their mind, they’re not going crazy. It’s called trauma, and it’s a part of this process that has been a really amazing clinical experience.”

Q: What has the been the most surprising about your time at CVT thus far?

Juli: One of the things that’s been most surprising for me is that cross-pollination is encouraged… really, pushed. I think that is a real benefit so we’re not feeling like we are alone. There’s only three of us here in Tucson, and it can feel kind of lonely, so having opportunities to be connected with partners in Minnesota and with our colleagues in Atlanta, who are doing different work, but that is similar, has been really nice. And, getting plugged in with the policy, development, and evaluation teams and knowing that we’re not on an island out here is a really huge asset in this organization.

Q: How have the sessions impacted the clientele?

Juli: It’s a funny thing to try to measure something that I can see with my eyeballs and not put a number to, but there is something so powerful in facilitating a group of you know, 10 to 15.

People who didn’t realize they had anything in common turn out to have a ton of things in common — not because they’re from Latin America, though that can be a part of it. Not because they have a common language, though that can be part of it. But, something that’s occurring in Honduras might be similar to something that’s occurring all the way in Ecuador, which are very different countries with very different contexts.

However, people are fleeing similar circumstances, in similar ways, and making similar decisions around leaving anything that’s familiar, leaving their spouse or their children behind, or bringing those people and potentially endangering them in the process of doing so. [They’re making] those impossible choices and weighing ‘what’s the least bad choice that I have?’ and people realize that they’re not the only one who have had to make or who may regret pieces of their choice.

It has been really beautiful to help people feel that commonality and not feel so isolated because of the impossible choices that their life has led them to.

Human nature is to assume that what you’re going through [is something] no one else in the history of the world has gone through. Sometimes that’s completely accurate, but sometimes there are really common threads and similarities that can be there. People aren’t always necessarily aware of that context, so bringing that awareness and helping them to know that they aren’t the only person who’s ever experienced what they have is incredibly powerful.”

Q: You talked about teaching resiliency for others — What does self-care look like for you and the staff?

Juli: That is actually something I have been pleasantly surprised with CVT’s strength around. Having boundaries is such an integral part of really hard clinical work that’s trauma-forward all day. An example is having a phone that’s specifically for work. Being able to put this phone on my desk and be done with it after around 6 pm is so beautiful.

One of the challenges that can exist in partnering, embedding oneself in a colocation situation is kind of living on different timelines and living with different expectations around availability, but CVT has been really excellent about demonstrating and it’s been kind of a learning point for everybody.

I can only speak for the ones that I work with, but my manager, Leora Hudak, is such a proponent of taking care of ourselves, taking a retreat day, using our PTO— and the rest of the team will figure out how to fill any gaps that may or may not arise. At the end of the day, the work we do is important, but nobody’s life is likely to end because we needed to take a day off, go to the doctor, or have a vacation for an entire week or two. None of us are so crucial that we have to be on call 24/7. Having a manager that not only agrees with that, but also lives that perspective is such a powerful thing and is very unique in this line of work.

This interview has been shortened and edited for brevity.

Dana Mach
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Dana Mach
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