By SHELLY WILKISON
A trusted teacher and coach turned licensed professional counselor, Vicki Bates has a passion for helping youth and adults work through problems to discover they have what it takes to live their dreams.
Bates, 57, who retired from Liberty Hill ISD in 2013, is now accepting new clients at her counseling practice in Bertram. Serving clients from age 10 through adult from Liberty Hill and throughout the Hill Country, Live-Your-Dream Counseling offers counseling from a strength and wellness perspective.
“When someone comes in and has had something horrendous happen, and they start talking about it, we try to re-author their story and tell it from a strength perspective. Becoming a survivor instead of a victim. It’s amazing what that does for people.”
Bates’ interest in counseling started as a teenager when she said she wanted to be a psychologist when she grew up.
“Sometimes, friends called me in the middle of the night to tell me their problems, and I would love that,” she said, adding that licensed professional counselors were non-existent then.
Bates said she would have benefitted from seeing a counselor in her teenage years as she suffered from low self-esteem as many young people do.
“I had low self-esteem because I was tall, and didn’t feel good about myself,” she said. “But when I started playing basketball in junior high, it suddenly became good to be tall. That connection in junior high is something that really helped me, so athletics was something positive for me. It made me feel like I fit.”
Bates said that’s why she chose coaching and teaching as a career.
Throughout her 29-year teaching experience, she said she had “a little voice that told me I needed to be a counselor, although not a school counselor,” she said, jokingly adding that it wasn’t a real voice either.
As a coach and teacher, she spent a lot of time talking to students who were having problems.
“I tried to watch my kids as they came into class, to see who appeared to be having troubles,” she said. She also talked with them after workouts or games.
After moving from Liberty Hill High School to the Intermediate School, Bates said she had more time and decided to go back to college. She was accepted into the highly respected counseling program at Texas State University.
At that time at age 52, she admitted she was nervous about going back to school.
“There was the fear of ‘can I still learn anymore? Was I too old?,’” she said. “But I really felt like it was a God thing.”
Bates said the doors kept opening, making it easier for her to accomplish her goals and live her dream.
As she went through the program, she discovered that most of her fellow students were nervous about working with adolescents.
“Well, I knew that was one population I wasn’t scared of,” she laughed. “Sometimes I say I’m a 12-year old trapped in a 57-year-old body. I just connect with kids, probably because I’ve never grown up.”
Bates’ ability to connect with students as a coach and English teacher made a difference with Liberty Hill students.
“I think it’s because people see me as sincere, because I am. Kids can tell I really do care. I come across as genuine because I am,” she said.
A client’s ability to trust the counselor is key to the success of counseling therapy, she said.
While starting her own practice, Bates is also working as a LPC with Heart of Hope, a counseling center based in Burnet and Llano. She said 60 percent of her current clients are adolescents, with 40 percent being adults. She spends one day every week at Llano High School and Llano Junior High where she works with 12 students.
Heart of Hope has a good relationship with LISD, which allows her to use a classroom to see students by appointment during the school day. With parent or guardian permission to leave class for one hour, the counseling session is completely confidential and the students don’t have to leave campus. She said the counseling service is paid for by the parent/guardian, not the school district.
She said anxiety levels in teens and even younger children seem to be increasing.
“Anxiety in teenagers is an issue I’m dealing with a great deal lately,” she said. “There are lots of self-esteem issues, and I’m dealing with a lot of depression with teenagers, as well as grief counseling.
“In kids, we’ve always been somewhat aware of teen suicide. There are a lot of self-harming behaviors, kids cutting themselves because they are having emotional issues and they don’t know how to deal with the emotions, so they can deal with the physical pain. That is something I’ve dealt with a lot,” she said.
“Research shows one in three students walking the halls at school have some kind of mental health issue,” she added. “Most kids don’t realize that. They think they’re the only one. When they find out there are other kids, sometimes that is so helpful.”
Bates said she has seen the success of small group therapy, and believes it could make a difference with students in Liberty Hill.
“Kids could connect with each other because group work is really powerful. It’s like helping to heal each other,” she said. “Letting the kids talk and be able to talk about things keeps the poison from being held inside.”
Bates explained that starting as children, people “stuff these emotional things down, and go on. We’re taught to toughen up and go on.
“Well, over the years these things start getting heavier and heavier, and they build up more and more and become like a toxin inside,” she said.
Bates said some adults come to counseling without knowing why they are yelling at a spouse or children, why they have an alcohol or substance abuse problem.
“Then we start talking and find that they had some really horrible trauma when they were young,” she said. “When they realize it’s not something defective in them, it’s something that happened, we can focus on that and heal that wounded inner child.”
Bates said the process works and she’s learned to trust it.
“Walking alongside someone is what it’s all about,” she said. “I don’t tell them what to do. I help them discover what it is they want in their own life. Part of my job is to give them hope that they can get to the life they want to lead or be the person they want to be.”
Bates said that few people these days have others who will really listen to them.
“People don’t listen to people anymore,” she said. “The healing part of telling your story is amazing.”
Bates said there is freedom and healing in talking with someone who isn’t your best friend, a spouse or a relative.
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to, to dump stuff on, who isn’t your best friend and you’re not going to look at them in the face very day,” she said. “That’s the power of counseling.
“Counseling should be like getting your teeth cleaned or getting your eyes checked. You should go to counseling, and there should be no shame in that,” she said. “This is how to stay mentally healthy, and we shouldn’t wait until we’re a drug addict or worse. Because if we can get hold of things when in the early stages of mental stress, we can control a lot more than if we wait until someone has a complete meltdown.”
Bates said nourishing and attending to one’s mental health is equally important as tending to the physical body.
She said more insurance policies are covering professional counseling than ever before, and while her business already accepts some insurance, including Medicaid, she is in the process of getting on all insurance boards.
“The world is so much more stressful than the old days,” she said, adding that the prevalence of technology in the form of social media adds stress on kids and adults. “Kids spend so much time texting and don’t have as much personal human conversation, and that’s effecting this whole group of kids. There is so much isolation.”
Bates said when she was in high school, she would have benefitted from counseling, but there was no one in that role.
Typically, a school counselor deals primarily with class scheduling and testing, unless that person has education and training as a licensed professional counselor.
“I wasn’t going to talk to a school counselor because she had known my family forever. So I was already out of college when I first went to a counselor,” she said.
Bates said regardless of age, most people are nervous about going to counseling at first. With a contagious sense of humor, she is able to quickly put anyone at ease.
“I remember the first time I went to a counselor, I went in and there was a couch and a chair. I was afraid she was going to make me lay down on the couch,” she laughed.
Bates’ new counseling center in Bertram has both a couch and a chair, but the client chooses where he or she is most comfortable.
And while much of her practice is focused on treatment of adolescents, Bates has also found a niche working with adults.
“I work with lots of adult women, and most recently, it seems a lot of couples. I also discovered that I connect well with men and teenage boys,” she said.
Bates has run a women’s counseling group in Marble Falls that has been successful, and she is looking to start one in Bertram-Liberty Hill that she will call “Reclaiming your Voice.”
“I find that a lot of women age 40 and older have kind of lost their voice over the years, self-esteem has dropped. I love working with people on self-esteem issues,” she said.
Bates said she chose the name “Live-Your-Dream Counseling” for her practice because she believes “you must dream in order to find your own true calling.
“I feel very strongly about people seeking out the dreams in their life … I think too many people settle or give up or never search. I believe that is a big part of my job — walking through the muck with people to help them discover their dreams and then live them,” she said.