Jennifer Silacci of Therapy Aid Coalition: The Power of Flexibility; How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic
Imposter Syndrome is real! I began a nonprofit with very little background in the field and limited business knowledge which meant there have been times I felt like a fraud. I remind myself that it’s impossible to know everything without learning it first and to carry on anyway. I still feel this ebb and flow, and I’ve made friends with the feeling, and don’t take it seriously. I use it as an opportunity to learn more, and to grow.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Silacci, Founder & Executive Director of Therapy Aid Coalition.
Jennifer Silacci is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a people-first mindset and over 16 years as a psychotherapist treating trauma and eating disorders. With a master’s degree from New York University, Jennifer is passionate about social change and helping people to heal. In March 2020 she formed Therapy Aid Coalition, a nonprofit offering free and low-cost therapy services for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and victims of national disasters.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a college town in Northern California, with two lovely, hard-working parents and a younger brother. My parents valued other cultures and traditions and exposed us to all walks of life including frequent trips to Mexico. During these trips as a child I learned that children share a universal language of joy and play. But I was also made aware of inequity at an early age, and this shaped the person that I am. I’ve always wanted to be of service. I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that I went on to become a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, interfaith minister, and now, the founder of a mental health nonprofit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am utterly in love with so many Rumi and Hafiz quotes, but my favorite quote is Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” It’s the quote that I try my very best to live by. I believe with my whole heart that the hard work of making our world a better place begins with YOU.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The film that broke my heart into a million pieces was Schindler’s List. I was 16 years old when it was released. It was, as it should be, soul crushing. Unlike books I had read, the cinematography brought the horror of the Holocaust to life in a completely different way. I’ll never forget the lump in my throat upon hearing, “How much is a life worth to you?” The film left me wondering — how can humans do this to each other? What would I have done if I’d been alive at that time? How would I have helped?
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Prior to the pandemic, I was a private practice psychotherapist of more than 16 years, in New York City, and then in Boulder, Colorado. My specialties were treating trauma and eating disorders. I ran eating disorder groups for NYU early on in my career, and later, I taught at postgraduate institutes in NYC and supervised newer therapists. My work was one-on-one, individual therapy sessions. I loved helping people to recover, heal and grow. I loved my practice, and honestly had no intention of making a career shift prior to the pandemic.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
My pandemic pivot was born out of a desire to do more during a time when so many people were in need. It became painfully clear in the early days of the pandemic that essential workers not only needed to keep themselves physically safe, they also needed to care for their emotional and mental wellbeing. I jumped at the chance to form an affordable and accessible way to provide essential therapy for essential workers. I never dreamt of starting a nonprofit organization or becoming so involved in the operational side of a company, but I jumped in head-first, started reading “Business Management 101” and reached out to contacts who could help guide me along the way.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
In March 2020, as COVID-19 started unfolding in the US, I began to hear eerily similar stories from patients in the healthcare field. Nurses were sharing the same startling truth. They were being given one mask and told to “wear it until it falls off your face”. Physicians, hospital administrators and nurses were riddled with anticipatory anxiety around the “first wave” of COVID hitting, and the ICU’s being burdened. My patients who were not essential workers were also scared and anxious, as grocery store shelves were cleared, and stay-at-home orders were issued. Some were being furloughed and laid off. And, those of us fortunate to be able to work from home were adjusting to an entirely new environment. Everyone was stressed and anxious. I was stressed and anxious. I asked myself, “If we feel this way, how in the world are essential workers coping?” That was when I took action, and the spark for what would become Therapy Aid Coalition ignited. I put out a call to all my colleagues, asking if they would join me in offering free and low-cost online therapy to essential workers during COVID. They joined me and shared the call with their colleagues. We were soon several thousand therapists strong, and within the first two weeks, we connected over 100 essential workers to our therapists.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Therapy Aid Coalition is constantly growing and evolving in the most exciting ways! To date, we have a team of over 3000 therapists in all 50 US States, willing to offer free and low-cost therapy to essential workers and their adult family members. We have a dedicated team of volunteers, and some amazing collaborators, such as Dr. Peter Levine’s, Somatic Experiencing ® Trauma Institute, and VidHealth, a telemedicine company that has generously taken care of all of our tech needs on a pro-bono basis. We’ve recently expanded to serve those impacted by the California and Colorado wildfires, and we’re working to secure grants and donations to create a scholarship fund which would allow us to cover the costs of therapy, making sessions free to those in need. We aspire to become the Red Cross of mental health, and to expand to serve those impacted by hurricanes, mass shootings, and other crises that occur within the United States. We’ve just received verbal confirmation of our first grant, which will allow us to provide 100 free therapy sessions to Coloradans who are essential workers, or who have been impacted by the wildfires, so that is super exciting!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
We are completely volunteer-created and run, and so I am immensely grateful to each and every volunteer, therapist, donor, and partner who is a part of our nonprofit. And, we have an amazing and diverse board of directors whom contribute their time, talent and expertise to advance our mission. We are made up of therapists, marketing and public relations professionals, IT professionals, and disaster response professionals. The crazy part about being formed in the midst of a pandemic is that these board members — who truly feel like dear friends at this point — are people I have never met in person. We are all spread out across the US and have only met via online meetings. I am so excited to meet them all in person, post-pandemic.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
An incredibly exciting part of starting a grassroots nonprofit organization is you make the blueprint up as you go. There is no road map, there is no guide and there definitely is not an instruction manual so figuring out each step along the way, in real time, has been an incredible opportunity. Since we are grassroots, with virtually no marketing budget, we have had to get very scrappy in how we spread the word of our organization. I have cold called numerous companies, celebrities, influencers and supporters and received incredible feedback from many of them but perhaps the most exciting endorsement I got was from Gloria Steinem. Her team responded with enthusiasm and she shared our message on her social media channels. That was an incredible moment and brought a level of validation to our cause I could have only dreamed of receiving.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Imposter Syndrome is real! I began a nonprofit with very little background in the field and limited business knowledge which meant there have been times I felt like a fraud. I remind myself that it’s impossible to know everything without learning it first and to carry on anyway. I still feel this ebb and flow, and I’ve made friends with the feeling, and don’t take it seriously. I use it as an opportunity to learn more, and to grow.
2. Your network is your strongest asset. Call on friends, family, and volunteers to help in whatever ways they can. I have leveraged the power of my network to reconnect with childhood friends, friends of friends and so on. It was also a lovely surprise to reconnect with people I hadn’t spoken with in quite some time.
3. Talk to everyone. Don’t be afraid to tell anyone and everyone what you’re doing. Call and email anyone you can think of that might resonate and ask if they can help spread the word. I did this exact thing, and an old friend passed my message along to his contacts. The next thing I knew we had support from Flash actor, Grant Gustin, who posted about us on social media.
4. Be prepared to work long hours. There will be a lot to do, and while you will do your best to let others help, as the person birthing this new thing, many of those long hours will belong to you. I quickly learned that I was most productive earlier in the day, and began getting up and starting much earlier, to capitalize on those early morning hours with an alert, creative and recharged mind.
5. Practice self-care. Despite those long hours, you will have to give yourself breaks, and rest. Take an online yoga class, meditate, take the dog for a walk, or just have a little Netflix binge. You will need to recharge and not run yourself into the ground. I realized early on, that if I didn’t take breaks to recharge, I had days where I was so tired that I was completely unproductive. If I had taken a break instead of pushing through to the point of exhaustion, I actually would have gotten more done.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Our brains often want to focus on the tough stuff, and it’s easy to get sucked into the trauma vortex, orienting toward the negative, stressful, or scary stuff. Some things that I do, and find helpful include:
- Orienting to the positive. This can be as simple as looking out your window and allowing your eyes to settle on something you find pleasant to look at. As you look at the pleasant object, take a moment to breathe, and notice how it feels in your body. For me, I notice immediately that my tense shoulders relax, my body settles, and I feel more at ease.
- Limit time viewing news and current events on social media, television and the Internet. If this is hard for you, the google chrome extension “StayFocused” can be used to help limit your time on various news sites. We are all feeling increasingly stressed with work from home, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. If during our free time, we are glued to the news, or scrolling through Instagram, our nervous systems might not have the chance to settle, relax, and get regulated. We then end up even more drained, instead of recharged and refreshed.
- Get outside into nature. We may need to keep physically apart, but there are so many ways to visit nature, and spend time outdoors while complying with safety recommendations. If you live somewhere warm, and happen to have a yard, or nearby park, you can have a picnic lunch and take a few moments to just rest on a blanket under the trees. Taking your dog for a walk, going for a hike, a run, or just sitting on a beach can do wonders for your body, mind and spirit.
- Interact with loved ones in a safe, and socially distanced (yet connected) way. This may look like an outdoor barbeque with a couple of friends who implement distance and masks while they cook up some burgers. Or, it might mean taking a masked hike, or dog walk with a friend. For others, it may be a Zoom coffee date or happy hour. No matter how it may look, it is absolutely essential for people to stay connected. Humans are not designed to be completely isolated. For those living alone without roommates, who may not have too many friends locally, I highly recommend looking for a virtual book club, trying out Bumble BFF (the version of Bumble to find friends), and making virtual coffee dates with friends at a distance.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
On a large scale, I believe strongly in implementing a national healthcare structure so that quality mental health care is available and accessible to all. On a personal level, I aspire to fill the void of national healthcare by growing Therapy Aid Coalition to serve all national crises and FEMA incidents in the US with free and low-cost mental health first aid.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I am very moved by people in the spotlight who use their presence to do good in the world, and whom break down stigma around mental health. Jameela Jamil is doing exactly that. By sharing the trauma she’s experienced and her own struggles and triumphs, she helps countless people to feel less alone. Her community, I Weigh, combats mental health stigma, promotes inclusion, healthy self-esteem, and so much more. I am convinced that there are many young people who choose to stay on this planet because of Jameela. I’m truly moved by her authenticity. Jameela — care to have a virtual tea from across the pond?
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can find Therapy Aid at www.therapyaid.org and @therapyaidcoalition and they can find me on instagram @jennifersilacci
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!