M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

The Murdock Trust invests in capacity-building projects at nonprofit organizations across the Pacific Northwest. When one grant helps create new opportunities and increases the impact of a nonprofit’s work down the line, we call it the ripple effect. The Stories of Impact series on our website helps shed light on the outcomes driven by some of the outstanding organizations the Murdock Trust has been fortunate to support in recent years.

A woman with long brown hair at the Northwest Catholic Counseling Center conducts a session.
Photo Credit: Windrider Institute

Kim Trigoso Harvey sees dozens of patients each week from the Latinx* communities in the greater Portland Metro area. With few closer options for Spanish-speaking, culturally competent counseling, some of her patients drive over an hour for their appointment. Many have never been in a counseling setting before because of assumptions or stigma around mental health they or their family carry. And most have never had an opportunity to speak with a bilingual, bicultural counselor who understands the context and culture in which they were raised.

These obstacles that many of Trigoso Harvey’s clients used to face were the reasons Northwest Catholic Counseling Center (NCC) started its Levantar program for the Latinx community of Portland. Though NCC provides professional mental health services to all, regardless of faith or finances, it has always had a special commitment to women, children, and those from marginalized communities who often shoulder the greatest social and economic burdens of poverty and mental health issues – a commitment which naturally led to the creation of the Levantar program.

“Levantar” means “to rise up,” and this program empowers the Latinx community of Portland to do just that through culturally competent counseling in Spanish. Despite stigma that often encourages them to seek care within the family unit rather than in a counselor’s office, many in the Latinx community are looking for counselors who can understand their cultural and linguistic background. The problem is, there have never been enough counselors equipped for this work, and the few that exist tend to experience significant burnout due to high demand.

“There’s a huge deficit of culturally competent, bicultural, or bilingual mental health care in this region,” says NCC executive director Erin Peters. “With the Latinx community being the fastest growing in Portland, and us having some foundation in the Catholic community, we felt that that would be a great bridge of trust and a good place to start addressing some of those deficits.”

Rising Up Together

In 2020, NCC applied for a Murdock Trust grant to hire staff for this new program. They knew they would need more than just a Spanish-speaking therapist or two, and intentionally sought those who were trained in culturally competent counseling and came from the cultural background of their patients.

Peters and Trigoso Harvey explain that seeing a counselor from your own cultural background is important for many reasons. For example, individuals are more likely to drop out of counseling if they do not see somebody to whom they can relate. They are also more likely to have their symptoms misdiagnosed or mischaracterized if their counselor does not understand their language or culture. Recounting trauma in a non-primary language is particularly difficult, and can often lead to misunderstanding. Finally, a shared cultural understanding of humor, body language, and other nonverbal cues can aid greatly in establishing trust between a counselor and patient.

“English and Spanish are actually very different in terms of how you express yourself,” says Harvey. “For Spanish speakers, it is more powerful to express themselves in Spanish, because they will have more freedom to express feelings and thoughts and narratives. If they were to do it in English, it would feel limiting.”

A Bridge and a Model

Since launching this program, NCC has become one of the few Spanish-speaking, culturally competent mental health care providers in the area. The impact is being felt at individual, organizational, and community levels.

“I am seeing the power of counseling,” says Harvey. “How actually, we can make change. We can’t treat everything 100% of the time, because there is trauma that takes time. But I am seeing clients be courageous, express their feelings, and try and come back to life again.”

Every patient that engages in counseling is someone who can return to their families and little by little reduce the stigma that care is not for people like them. At an individual and family level, the impact is deep and long-lasting.

Organizationally, Peters says that this program has not only provided them an incredible bridge into Latinx communities for outreach, education, and collaboration, but has also provided a model for bringing culturally competent mental health care into other communities. NCC recently hired their first Mandarin-speaking counselor, and intends to create a program modeled off the success of Levantar to bring services to the Southeast Asian population of Portland.

“It’s opened the opportunity for us to expand beyond Spanish,” says Peters. “How great would it be if we had a Laotian speaker, a Vietnamese speaker? The Levantar program offers a vision for how we could make that happen.”

Finally, the ripple effects of this program are being felt throughout the Latinx community of Portland. Thanks to partnerships with schools, health care providers, funders, and others, NCC is bringing training and outreach to Spanish-speaking groups at local schools. They have also entered into partnerships with peer providers to apply for a grant on workforce development related to mental health and the Latinx community. In these ways and others, the Levantar program is helping create a culture of collaboration and empowerment around mental health for the region’s Spanish-speaking community.

NCC, thank you for listening to the need of your region and responding with such impact. May your work continue to empower our communities to rise up, levantar, together!

*Note: It is Murdock Trust policy to always defer to the preferences of our grantees regarding cultural terms. In this blog post, we use Latinx because that is NCC’s preferred term. 

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