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‘Small but mighty’: Alum on the challenges, triumphs of mental health, LGBTQI+ advocacy work in rural Iowa

Stories | 06.20.23

For Gus Raymond, a regular day as the director of prevention and intervention services at his rural northwest Iowa school district does not exist.

“I’m getting calls from the kids before I even get to the school building,” said Raymond, a 2022 graduate of the Adler University Master of Arts in Counseling in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) program. “Sometimes, I get calls at 10 o’clock at night. For many of my kids, I’m their only support.”

Raymond is getting requests ranging from providing reliable transportation to students to finding an in-patient rehabilitation care for a student experiencing suicidal thoughts within a three-hour radius.

“The national recommendation for the counselor-to-student ration is supposed to be 250-to-1,” he said. “Here in rural Iowa, it’s closer to 500-to-1. There isn’t enough of anyone in any category to go around.”

In addition, as a transgender man, Raymond is among a small but mighty group of advocates offering support to LGBTQI+ students and trying to counter the growing list of statewide legislations targeting the transgender community. He recently helped the community start a PFLAG chapter.

It doesn’t end there.

Many of Raymond’s students are immigrants or refugees whose families have come to Storm Lake, Iowa — which has a population of about 11,000 — to work in the meat processing industry. They offer unique challenges for the district and mental health providers.

“We have about 30 languages spoken in our school district,” he said. “I have had to coordinate with local community agencies to get additional resources to families struggling with food insecurity, poverty, or acclimating to a new environment.”

Nonetheless, despite a lack of resources, Raymond is amazed by the number of people who are willing to offer support in his community.

“We’ve built quite a grassroots network around here,” he said. “They are my partners in crime, so to speak. We call each other. We may whine, gripe and moan, but the moment we ask for help assisting a kid who might be in a situation, we have people who are instantly on the case to help.”

Raymond, who is a national certified counselor, offers insight on the ups and downs of working in a rural community, his work with LGBTQ+ advocacy, providing support for students from immigrant and refugee families, and how his time at Adler University prepared him for this line of social justice work.

How does your counseling background help you in your work at the Storm Lake Community School District?

With my counseling and therapy backgrounds, I’m able to offer a different style of student services support than a traditional student services administrator might be able to do. I’m often dealing with a variety of situations. It could be a student caught with a vape, or I have to make two mandatory reports for two students who were struggling with some home issues and abusive environments. Sometimes, I’m coordinating with local community agencies to get additional resources for families who’ve come to work at the processing plant. We end up becoming a community services organization that also sidelines as a school. And it makes my day nothing close to regular or predictable in any way, shape, or form. I spend all day bouncing from kid to kid to kid and issue to issue and answering crisis calls and dealing with what the administration needs me to deal with while making sure everyone got to their classes and tests, got to a safe place to crash for a while because they didn’t sleep well last night. All of the above happened, and that was just today.

Tell us about the community of Storm Lake, Iowa, and the students you work with at the school district.

I spent the year building relationships with a lot of our students who are at-risk and of non-white cultures. Most of our students are immigrants or refugees because of the meat processing plant here in town. They account for about a third of our population and accounts for, I’d say, 75% of our school. I tend to scoop up anywhere between 1 to 6 kids daily to make sure they get to school, and they know they can call me. And we’ve just worked hard to build those relationships, so they know they can come to me at any point.

Our county or our town 25 years ago was 85% white. It’s now 38%, which is even with the Latino population. I primarily tend to work with most of the native Micronesians in school as well as a lot of different Latin populations, and several of the Asian and Pacific Islander mixture of students.

How does being in a rural area exacerbate the lack of mental health care services?

I know everyone is working so hard and doing the best they can. But there are struggles. Partial hospitalizations don’t exist. It’s just a concept here. When we have a student who is suicidal, and we need a place to put them so they can recoup and get the services they need, the resources are almost non-existent. It could take hours to find a bed. Often, we’re sending them four hours across the state because we don’t have a place to put them. We have about 68 beds max in a three-hour radius for rehabilitation in-patient programs for our youth. The community isn’t getting what it needs.

And then you’ve also got the immigration situation that we have in the state for all of these processing plants, and our diversity has changed in the last 20 years astronomically. Things have shifted dramatically. But the powers that be have not. So, a lot of these agencies are still run by the same people. When I have, for example, native Micronesian families who need services, those services are not culturally relevant and they’re not prepared for the diversity and immediate failure, with no alternatives. We feel a little hopeless occasionally, but we all get back up and try again. It’s an incredible network of warriors; these people are warriors and are fighting to get folks what they need around here.

How does being in a rural setting amplify the challenges of LGBTQ+ youth? How do you address those challenges?

If we weren’t already divided as a state, we are even more so during this legislative session. People are even more afraid. People are even more divisive. And way less “Iowa nice” than they used to be. Even just a year ago, I felt pretty comfortable being outspoken. I’m not shy. I do public engagements and speaking engagements all the time. I’ve been in the newspaper many times. They don’t get a lot of me around here, so they tend to splash me all over the place because I’m novel. As one of the advocates and defenders of the younger folks here, I find myself pulling back and shying away. I still do the advocacy work, but I have a family to think about. And this year has changed that dramatically. I don’t feel like I can be as outspoken and be in the front as I have been because I’m worried about what will happen to my family.

And if I’m pulling back, I can only imagine what other people are doing. And I know I have to be so careful when I’m around the students because I need to make sure my personal fears aren’t coming through to my support and advocacy for them. I don’t want to scare them, but I do my best to keep them informed about the legislative process while trying to not interject too much of my own worries.

On the other hand, we have a small but mighty group of advocates that have come together and have attended “Legislative Coffees,” which is their term for mini-pop up townhall events for state politicians. We have attended every legislative coffee in this town this year. And we have been united. We have our “Say Gay Everyday” shirts on. We’re like these rainbow folks who sit in the front row. It’s been very interesting asking questions at those coffees and trying to get things done.

What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling hopeless? What advice would you give somebody who would pursue this work?

That’s so hard to answer. The thing that comes to mind is the cliché: “It’s a calling.”
But it’s kind of legit. I never intended to do this. I was supposed to be an anthropologist, hanging out with orangutans in Borneo. I just kept finding myself in these circumstances and seeing these injustices, and I just couldn’t walk away. One thing led to another, and I met the right people at the right time. I said I wasn’t going to work in mental health, and next thing I knew I was a peer recovery coach. I said I’m not doing the therapy part; I’ll do the substance use part. Next thing you know, I’m at Adler getting a master’s degree in clinical mental health. OK, I’m not working with youth. Now you see where I’m at. All I can say is that it happened to me. The best advice I can give is to listen to yourself and to the people around you, and don’t turn that blind eye.

How has Adler prepared you for working with students in a rural setting?

I went back to school quite late in my life. I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until I was 42. Then someone talked me into being a therapist, and I needed a master’s degree. I ended up liking psychology. I had a great professor who kicked my butt in my program and is still a really good friend. I took her advice to find something I love to do and find something worth fighting for. And being part of a couple of marginalized identities fueled me to find the right place.

Adler does a great job of promoting its social justice component. And although there were some bumps and bruises along the way, I think the programs at Adler continue to evolve and find their legs to respond to what’s happening in the world. Overall, it was an amazing experience. I made some seriously awesome connections. The social justice practicum was awesome and an absolute catalyst for many things for me. The skills you will learn, those therapeutic skills, the relationship building, the theories and techniques are invaluable in this type of work.


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