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Retiring Saint Louis Counseling chief programming officer Saundra Barker says work has always been a mission

Retiring social worker started Crisis Response Team, grew School Partnership Program

Saundra Barker posed for a portrait March 30 at Saint Louis Counseling in Fenton. Barker, a licensed clinical social worker and now former chief program officer of Saint Louis Counseling, retired March 31 after 38 years with agencies under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of St. Louis.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
Most of Saundra Barker’s belongings were packed up as her retirement came at the end of March. But the licensed social worker at Saint Louis Counseling knew that even in the last few days, a knock could come at her door at any time with the news of another crisis and a need for counselors to be there.

And through her last day on March 31, after nearly four decades of service, Barker said she would be poised to respond to whatever the need may be, because the work has always been a mission to serve others.

“I have always considered this job a mission,” she said. “We are here to serve humans that need a safe space to go and talk about whatever is happening in their lives.”

For the past 12 years, Barker has served as chief program officer at the Catholic Charities federated agency, and in total has served for two decades at Saint Louis Counseling. Her overall work as a licensed clinical social worker at Catholic Charities of St. Louis has spanned across 38 years.

Crisis Response Team

Barker started with Catholic Charities in 1985 at Catholic Services for Children and Youth. She worked in the Own Home department, later called Home Based Counseling, in which therapists made home visits through referrals from the state.

“The purpose was to keep kids in their homes so they were not removed by what was then the Division of Family Services,” she said.

Before she came to Catholic Charities, Barker worked with the Missouri Department of Mental Health in flood disaster relief. That crisis background is what led her to start the Crisis Response Team with former colleague Tom Lemp. Now under the umbrella of Saint Louis Counseling, the team sends therapists to schools, churches and businesses to help people impacted by trauma whenever a crisis occurs. There can be anywhere from one to 10 crises in a given week, with Barker coordinating the therapists as needed.

Barker recalled a suicide at a Catholic elementary school in 1986, in which counselors were sent to provide services to the students. “It was a pretty tragic event. It affected the parish community, the school, the kids,” she said. Afterward, she and Lemp went through additional training and put the Crisis Response Team together. It initially offered services to schools and eventually became the provider for the archdiocese’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Earlier this year, counselors were called to St. Patrick Center after staff there witnessed a shooting death outside of the building. “Sometimes it takes four or five days where you show up, you meet with people and provide them resources,” Barker said. “Usually when you hear something in the news, whether it’s in a public school or a Catholic school, or wherever — we’re responding to it. Somehow it touches somebody in some way.”

The Crisis Response Team, she said, is “wonderful. You just know who to call for different events. It’s things like, ‘I really need you show up at this place at 7 o’clock in the morning to meet with teachers before the kids come.’”

School Partnership Program

Barker also was instrumental in growing the School Partnership Program from about five counselors in seven schools in the early 2000s to 60 therapists in 133 parochial, private and public schools today. Counselors have a presence at Catholic schools in all 11 counties of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Schools may request the services of a counselor for one or more days a week or on an as-needed basis. Counselors may provide crisis-response services, consultations regarding students or general school-related issues, and preventive services on topics such as social skills, relationship issues, conflict resolution, classroom management and self-esteem, among others.

When Barker moved over to Catholic Family Counseling (now Saint Louis Counseling) in the early 2000s, the few participating schools were those who paid for it on their own, or through state funding for prevention programs.

As Catholic educators and administrators saw the need for mental health services in schools, efforts began to expand the reach, and a connection was made with other funding sources, such as the St. Louis County Children’s Fund, among others.

“There was a real belief by all of them that we needed mental health services, and I couldn’t have done it without their support,” Barker said of Catholic school leaders. “The schools have embraced having a counselor, and they have found a way to fund it.”

As a former principal and now superintendent for elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Maureen DePriest said that the relationship between Saint Louis Counseling and the Office of Catholic Education and Formation has been a “hand-in-glove” situation.

With the School Partnership Program and Crisis Response Team, “it’s a seamless process, and they are always at the ready,” DePriest said.

Barker’s contributions have been “nothing short of amazing,” DePriest said. “She is about the other. She is about the dignity of the person. She is that calm and reassuring presence and has an attention to detail. … It comes through in the way that she engages people — it’s faith-centered and mission-oriented.”

Mission territory

Barker believes the work has been a team effort, and she acknowledged her supportive colleagues and bosses over the years. The joys come through the thank-you notes she and her colleagues have received from students, or the client who says: “You helped save my life.”

It’s those things that have helped her get through some of the toughest cases in her career, including a family she helped years ago who later all died in a house fire.

“We really have a mission to serve other human beings in this world and find a way to make things move toward people’s well-being, whether that’s through being a supportive listener or some serious mental heath intervention,” she said.

Years ago, Barker met with members of two parishes, both of which experienced a murder-suicide within each parish community. Some families asked her: Why did this happen?

“I remember telling them, I can’t answer those questions … we have to get our comfort from something greater than us,” she recalled.

As a professional working with people from different backgrounds, faith only comes up if a client wishes to talk about it. But for Barker personally, that something greater is a belief in God. “Jesus’ words speak to me about how we’re to live,” she said. “I believe Jesus’ words in the Bible.”

There’s a verse in Philippians, in which St. Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ.”

“That helps me through my days,” Barker said.

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