A helping hand

Beth Fier (MA ’98)

As a young girl growing up in Texas, Beth Fier (MA ’98) dreamed of visiting Africa and observing its legendary wildlife firsthand. She imagined watching speedy cheetahs race through fields and graceful giraffes munch on treetops, all from only a few yards away. It was a dream that stayed with her for several decades until finally, for her 40th birthday, she decided to treat herself to a very special present: a trip to Rwanda.

“I went to see all the wildlife, but I came back realizing Rwanda is all about the people,” says Beth, who traveled there with a People to People group of mental health professionals in 2008. “There’s such an amazing resiliency there—the people were so open and welcoming to us—but there’s also still a lot of trauma there as a result of the [1994] genocide.”

One statistic Beth learned on the trip particularly affected her: In 2008, for the entire country of Rwanda, there were only three specially trained psychiatrists. Three psychiatrists for a nation that was ravaged by genocide. Three psychiatrists for a population of over nine million. Three psychiatrists for a country where an estimated 29 percent of people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The number shocked Beth, a professional mental health counselor who earned her masters degree in counseling from The College of New Jersey. “I knew immediately that I wanted to do something to help the country heal,” she says.

Once home from her trip, Beth got to work doing just that. She established SEED Supports—an organization that markets fair-trade baskets and coffee. She vowed to donate all proceeds to the Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN) Village of Hope and Policlinic, both of which she’d visited on her People to People trip. RWN “works with women who were affected by the genocide, orphans, and women who have experienced different types of sexual and gender-based violence,” she says. “A lot of the women [they help] are HIV positive, and are dealing with that on top of economic hardships.”

Beth (second from left) at Milenium Village, where perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan genocide have worked together to build housing and live side by side.

Beth has also managed to tie her fair-trade work in with her full-time job. By day, she runs a small counseling and consulting practice, and often works with adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a result, she’s been trying to partner SEED Supports with nonprofits—especially ones that offer vocational services or training for the populations she counsels.

Over the last few months, Beth’s been thinking about an even more hands-on approach to helping the people of Rwanda. “I’ve been talking with the RWN’s founder/director, who is hoping to institute a more formalized mental health component for their program,” she says. “I originally thought that was something too big to try to do by myself, but in speaking with [the director], I realize how important it is for them to have.”

When we spoke, she had plans to attend the National Board for Certified Counselors’ mental health facilitator training program later this spring. “Mental health facilitators go into countries where there isn’t an established program for counselors and provide basic training for trainers there,” she explains. “If we can raise the funding, we can help the Women’s Network bring in trainers and manualize their approach to counseling.”

Of course, that part is still well in the future—at least a year or more away, Beth says. Still, that doesn’t mean she’s any less eager to return to Rwanada as soon as she can. “I went thinking this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” she says. “Now, I keep thinking about how I can go back.”

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