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Counseling On Demand, our behavior change model, has two essential parts, the counseling framework, philosophy and skills and the service delivery system methodology.

Our program is based on the concept that most, if not all negative behaviors and habits can be traced back to a lack of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love. People in recovery programs refer to this lack as "that empty hole inside of me that I attempted to fill with ... [their particular addictive behavior]". Our approach is two-pronged; we assist, support, teach how and encourage youth to change their negative behaviors and, at the same time, teach them effective ways to increase their self-confidence, self-esteem and self-love. Without the latter, the behavior changes will be temporary or they will find a new negative behavior. People who feel good about and love themselves do not do things that put themselves in harm's way by doing irresponsible things such as substance and tobacco abuse, criminal activities, unsafe and risky actions including unsafe sexual activities.

Another characteristic of most at-risk youth is that they lack many of the life-skills (social, work, relationship-wise and, even domestic) that are necessary to support a healthy, responsible lifestyle. This is especially true for those who come from dysfunctional families and those who started substance abuse at an early age. Therefore, even if they gain more self-esteem and change to more positive behaviors, there is still a good chance of failure unless they also learn essential life-skills.

We have developed methodologies for enhancing both self-esteem and life-skills that are easily taught to new counseling staff and are compatible with the Counseling On Demand (COD)service delivery system as described below. Substance abuse plays such a large art in the lives of most of our population and is a leading cause of temporary slips from safe sex practices with youth who usually play safely. For this reason our counseling staff is well schooled in intervention techniques and in 12-step and other treatment methods for those who do not need residential treatment. For those who do, we regularly refer to local programs. For youth that are under 18years old, our aim is to get them in a non-exploitive, stable living situation. We work very closely with the Department of Children and Family Services' Runaway Adolescent Program (RAP) and regularly refer youth to them for placement in group and foster homes.

Our counseling staff are masters level, mental health professionals, although we see their role as being much more than just a therapist. In earlier times, when youth lived in extended families and close-knit communities, there was usually a family member (an aunt, uncle, grandparent) or community elder, who served as a non-punitive, alternate parent. Since these people were not involved in discipline and had demonstrated unconditional love for the youth, they could be turned to for guidance, comfort, and mentoring, with the knowledge that the youth would always get an honest evaluation of his/her actions. Because we feel it is important for our counselors to be able to act in this "elder"/role model role, we look for candidates who have been successful in their personal and professional lives. Counselors like this can teach their young clients the necessary life-skills lesions with the conviction of knowing they work. For at-risk youth on their own, having a counselor who they can bond to, look up to and emulate, is a key ingredient to counter the multiple levels of negative influences - personal, cultural, and social - which regularly undermine efforts to positively change one's life.

The fundamental elements of our Counseling On Demand (COD) service delivery system, regardless of the setting that we are operating in, are:

  • 1. The counselor(s) go into their target population's environment, ie: the streets, coffee houses, or a school setting.
  • 2. They spend as much time as is necessary to establish a friendly, trusting relationship with their potential clients. The guiding principle for this rapport building process is that the counselors must use a totally non-aggressive approach. The youth must set the level of interaction and that will be determined by his/her level of comfortability and trust with the counselors. This approach sets the stage for successful counseling later on, for two reasons. First, youth do not change their behavior until something in their life experience convinces them that change is necessary. Imposing solutions and opinions on youth before they are asked for, are both ineffective and a rapport destabilizer. When the youth asks the counselor for advice or a life-skills lesson, she/he will be much more likely to listen to and act on the answer. Second, it prevents the "who asked you" defense. As some point in counseling directed at behavior change, the therapist will have to point out the youth's negative behaviors. Unless the youth asked for this confrontation, his/her best defense against this unsolicited advice is "who asked you".
  • 3. Once rapport is achieved, the COD counselor is trained to recognize and capitalize on the therapeutic opportunities that are presented by the client in future casual conversations. Most COD counseling is done under the guise of casual conversation.
  • 4. Youth are guaranteed access to a counselor that they already know and trust, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Youth are most receptive for behavior change suggestions and instruction at or just after times of crisis when their life experience has dramatically pointed out a need for change. By always being available to talk and/or walk them through these crises, the COD therapists are able to capitalize on these windows of opportunity that would otherwise be lost by the next day when denial returned and/or they were high on drugs again.
  • 5. Since the goal of COD is to move youth towards self-sufficiency, there is a constant review of their progress to make sure that that leaming and behavior change is taking place. When a particular life-skill or behavior change is mastered, support in that area is gradually withdrawn to prevent an ongoing, unneeded, dependency on the counselors.

This is a model that has evolved, over the years, through a trial and error process. We view the program as a dynamic, constantly evolving one where only those tools that work are kept. We subscribe to the principle that there is no such person as a resistant client, there are just counselors, therapists and programs that are not flexible enough to adapt to the individual needs of their clients. For this reason, we regularly solicit feedback from our clients, both in writing through feedback boxes, questionnaires and verbally soliciting comments and by keenly observing their responses to our methodologies. These observations are most important because of the nature of the Counseling On Demand process. Because it is so casual and conversational in appearance, many of the clients, especially early on, have not enough awareness of the process to comment on it.

Because of drastic decreases in our funding due to changes in IRS rules for calculating tax deductions for vehicle donations, our major income source, we are now operating primarily as a national toll-free hotline service for teens and young adults, either in crisis or on their own and in need of support and guidance. Most of our clients now come to us via that toll-free crisis hotline. They find us primarily through this website. They are also referred to us by concerned adults and by other youth-working agencies. Currently, we are counseling almost an equal number of ethnicly diverse male and female teens and young adults.

The following description is more historical in nature because our lack of funding precludes our active out-reach to these populations. Because our pledge to all our clients is that we will always be there for them when they need us, we continue to work with many of our former teen clients who are now in their late twenties and early thirties.

We used to work in the Hollywood/West Hollywood area, with essentially two different populations:

The first were mostly homeless gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender males, 13 to 24 years old, who engage in survival sex on Santa Monica Blvd for their living needs. They usually lived in $35 a night motels. Most of them were not living with their parents due to the parents' attitudes regarding their sexual orientation. Included in this population are local teens who lived with parents or family members. For these youths, the streets are their playground. They would also, on occasion, engage in prostitution for spending money. Unfortunately, the lure of lots of easy money got many of these teens to become uninterested in low paying entry level jobs, stoped living at home and going to school and became full time hustlers. With plenty of money, they lived in motels and shoped in high class stores.

We worked with this population, on the street, in the Santa Monica and La Brea area of Hollywood/West Hollywood, CA. When we first began working with this population in 1995, we saw about 40 kids every night.By 2002, on most nights we were lucky to see one kid. We realized that we because we had been moving an average of twenty-five teens per year off of the street combined with increased police and sheriff pressure to keep new kids from setting up shop we were able to declare victory and refocused our resources to the second population.

The second were primarily gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and transgender youths who were in semi-stable to stable living situations and either worked or went to school. They congregated in the coffee houses and underage discos of West Hollywood. Even if homeless and unemployed, clients from this group usually chose to sleep on friends' couches rather than resorting to survival sex on the streets. Included in this group were youths who live at home and are in the early stages of coming out. Although they were in stable living conditions, they were still at high risk for substance abuse and addictions, HIV/AIDS and suicide. We worked with this population in and around the coffee houses in West Hollywood and on the phone via our toll-free hotline.

We also provided our social services assistance to the students of Eagles Center, a LA Unified School District continuation high school that provides a hassle-free environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. A year of experience there showed that the COD model also worked well in a school environment. Due to a lack of funding, we had to suspended our work there.

Please write to Jason Wittman, the Executive Director with your comments and questions.

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