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SA counseling practice shares non-traditional therapy options with El Paso leaders

After helping Sutherland Springs survivors, the CEO of the Ecumenical Center has seen how powerful unorthodox forms of therapy can be.

SAN ANTONIO — It's been two weeks since a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.

Ecumenical Center CEO Mary Fisk has spent the last few days with the grieving community, working with city leaders and the FBI to develop long-term plans for healing.

"We're very hopeful that, as we talk about the lessons learned in responding to such tragedy, these never happen again," Fisk said. "But we also know that it's important to gain the knowledge and the experience that we have, collectively across our country, to respond and to walk with those individuals who've received the worst news of their lives and be there for them."

Nearly two years ago, Fisk and her team of counselors rushed to Sutherland Springs after a gunman stole the lives of 26 people inside First Baptist Church.

"We were in crisis-counseling mode and transitioned into long-term counseling," Fisk said. "Where we provide play therapy, art therapy, music therapy and support groups as well."

A week before the shooting in 2017, the Ecumenical Center opened its Seeds of Hope Garden. Many survivors and their families found themselves walking the outdoor trail.

"It's been a place of healing, it's been a place of solitude for many," Fisk said. "It really does help to be out in nature."

The path leads you through a butterfly garden. There's also a swing, benches and an "Imagination Station" where children can climb and play as they talk to their counselor.

Fisk said the constant motion helps some trauma survivors relax.

"Often times it takes away the anxiety of walking into an air-conditioned office and closing the door," Fisk said. "Having their back to a closed door creates much angst."

Fisk said the Ecumenical Center served 25,000 people in 2018—half of them children.

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While the people of El Paso could use the relief, the garden is too far away.

Fisk has shared success stories of non-traditional therapy with city leaders in El Paso.

"We talked much about nature therapy, such as you see here in the garden," Fisk said. "But we also talked about music therapy, art therapy and pet therapy."

She said it's important for these people to have the care they need to walk the long road ahead.

"What we would hope to see is the families in El Paso receive the resources that they need to deal with where they are in this very moment," Fisk said.

A conference on mental health is also happening later this week in San Antonio. The Pathways to Hope Conference will be held Friday and Saturday at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where there will be speakers, workshops and resources on different mental health disorders.

Doug Beach is a chairman for the Pathways to Hope Conference. He said this event is meant to break the stigma of mental illness and show people they aren't alone.

"A lot of people don't know where to get help when there is a mental health issue," Beach said. "That's pretty important. You walk into a conference and you see a thousand people and all of a sudden you realize you're not the only one."

Beach said he believes this event holds a greater weight now in in the wake of three recent shootings.

"We need to be better educated about mental illness," he said. "The important thing is that everyone is in the conversation. We do better in community when everyone is involved."

This is the fourth year of the conference. Beach expects 1,200 to 1,500 people to come out.

This event is free and open to the public. More details can be found here.

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