By *Teresa Noise. Apache Messenger
On Tuesday, February 20, 2018, the San Carlos Apache Wellness Center said goodbye to its Clinical Director, Dr. Thea Wilshire, with a farewell banquet. Dr. Wilshire was responsible for the clinical services for the Wellness Center, including all therapeutic day services. She has 21 years of experience, worked more than 19 years for the San Carlos Wellness Center, and has been honored nationally and internationally for her work. She holds both psychologist and substance abuse counselor licenses. She was honored in 2016 by the American Psychological Association for their first ever “Excellence in Rural Psychology” award; an award she attributes to the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the Apache people.
Dr. Wilshire recalls her first invitation to work for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. She was a fifth-generation Southern California girl from Pasadena. She received a call to join the Wellness Center, something she had not planned on as a career. After several invitations, she finally came out to San Carlos and, through prayer, God changed the direction of her steps dramatically. She initially committed to two, maybe three years.
Now, 19-plus years later, she is retiring from the work she has enjoyed as a life’s work.
Dr. Wilshire shared with us the things that have made her enjoy her work here in San Carlos and the accomplishments of the Wellness Center. The Wellness Center is a Tribal department and is not part of the San Carlos Healthcare Corporation (hospital), although it does occupy one of the buildings at the new hospital complex.
Planning for the new hospital included the Wellness Center as a potential division, but it has remained a Tribal department. During the planning stages of the new hospital, the Wellness Center grew from only one behavioral health person – Dr. Wilshire herself – to six and then 12, so the hospital designed a building with more than 20 offices, thinking that would be more than enough space. By the time the new hospital opened, the Wellness Center had grown to more than 118 employees, and the building could not accommodate the center. The Wellness Center occupies the hospital’s behavioral health building, but the entire staff is located in 12 buildings in total.
The Wellness Center provides clinical services on an out-patient basis. Its Young Warriors program offers services within the school system, including summer camps, kids’ camps at breaks, weekend services, and prevention services. Young Warriors is based at Rice School and at the secondary school. Before and after school services are offered, as well as groups and crisis services during the day in the schools.
An expanded program, Extreme Warriors, offers a weekend adventure-based program for active kids from the Young Warriors program, taking them on camping, rock-climbing, river-rafting and other trips that are more adventure based. At the same time, therapists teach them coping skills, how to make positive life choices and avoid peer pressure, and all of the necessary life skills for success.
The clinical services office makes decisions such as programming for sixth graders after a suicide and the outreach offered to twelfth-graders who have lost a classmate to cancer or if there is a surge of bullying. The office also determines what type of training the Wellness Center team needs to be able to respond effectively if, for example, we see a spike in anxiety in the kids. What is it that we need to do? What services do we recommend for the school to do, and whether we come along for the in-services for teachers: these are Clinical Director decisions.
The San Carlos Wellness Center has received two Best in the Nation awards.
Dr. Wilshire commented, “There are larger Tribes than us that have less services. I think it’s the success of the team that has made this possible. There has been some great leadership. There has been a real visionary leadership with the program managers that have come along through the years. There have been really amazing team members that have stepped up. We have Tribal folks that have gone on and received BA’s and Masters and are in doctoral programs. They caught the vision, and they were willing to step up to the plate. And I think the collective effort of the team has resulted in such a powerful and successful program.”
“Our prevention team was recognized repeatedly by the governor’s office, by the state, by the Nation. Our clinical services, our collective work has been honored as one of the Best in the Nation awards for suicide prevention efforts. I don’t think people realize how many suicides we stop, how effective the team has been at intervening when people are at risk. We don’t always know everyone that is at risk. If they are with us, we have been able to get them services, come alongside them and support them. Not everyone is with the Wellness Center. Efforts have been so creative and multipronged that the team has been recognized for that. There are other Tribes across the Nation that implement things that the Wellness Center does. Another award was for overall clinical services. We have team members who have developed programs, like in the area of domestic violence, that other Tribes come and learn from us.”
“The Psychosocial Rehabilitation program, PSR program, for adults with developmental disabilities, that’s had National recognition and, again, other Tribes come to learn from us. And it’s not just one-way.
We’ve gone to Hopi, we’ve gone to Salt River, we have gone to other places to take best practices from them as well. It’s been a really good collaborative effort.”
Dr. Wilshire is proud of the post-doctoral fellowship program at the Wellness Center. She stated, “We found that Native Americans are so under-represented in the field of psychology. Not that they are not getting doctorates – they can’t find places to do their supervised training after they get their doctorate, to get licensed. Once you have went all the way through – you’ve got your doctorate, you’ve done your research – you are required to do one to two years of supervised doctoral training, and there just haven’t been places for Native Americans to do that. At San Carlos Wellness, we were able to create – and the Tribal Council caught the vision on this – we were able to create the first tribally run post-doctoral fellowship, and we so far have had three doctors go through our program and get licensed. The number went from 100 Native American licensed psychologists in the country to 103. That is a huge impact that the San Carlos Apache Tribe is having on the Nation. And right now we have a Cherokee woman that is just now finishing up, so she is going to take her licensing exam – which is really hard to pass, and our folks have passed it every time. So we are soon going to have four!”
“Another thing we’ve been a part of: to work on statewide training programs for Tribal involuntary commitment laws, the jurisdictional issues of someone who is deemed incompetent. A person needs inpatient mental health services, and they can’t agree to it or they can’t see that they need it, so the court orders them to get it. Once that’s ordered, we don’t have the capabilities. There is nowhere in Indian Country that has an inpatient facility. We have to send them to a state facility, but it is really complicated legally to get the Tribe’s court order to get domesticated and rewritten by the state, because they can’t take the person unless it’s state ordered. How to understand it clinically and legally – we have a task force that the Wellness Center led, along with state representatives. Our work is being used to train across the entire state now. We have been asked and spoken at state gatherings and helped train other Tribes and other county attorneys and county court clerks to understand this process. We are also a part – Navajo was the start on this, but San Carlos is probably the second strongest member of an inter-Tribal task force that is working to get federal Medicaid legislation changed. We are trying to get an amendment to federal law because Native Americans in Tribal correctional facilities are excluded. We sent it to the president, and we have Senator McCain working with us. It will impact the country.”
Dr. Wilshire’s retirement will take place after the Tribe gets accreditation with CARF International, which demonstrates accountability and conformance to internationally accepted standards that promote excellence in services.
Dr. Wilshire added, “I would love to thank the council and the Tribe. The Tribe has been a fantastic employer. I just have no complaints and have talked to people in town that have misperceptions of the Tribe. They are the best employer of the entire area. They are generous with benefits and with leave, and a good employer. I want to thank the Tribe for taking a chance on me. I also want to thank the Wellness Center team members, because I am trained as a psychologist, not an administrator. They have had to be really patient as I have learned all of these skills on the job. I have learned with difficulty at times. They have suffered through my mistakes and have been really patient as I continued to grow into that role. I hope to come back. I love the Tribe, I love the Apache people. I just can’t believe how generous people have been to me in sharing culture and history and language, significant places. I did not anticipate that this would be my life calling but, boy, have I been blessed in this way.”
Dr. Thea Wilshire received her BA in psychology from Pepperdine University in 1987. She holds two master’s degrees, in psychology and theology, and a doctorate in clinical psychology, which she earned from Fuller Theological Seminary, where she studied from 1989 to 1995. She has attended the Harvard Kennedy School, Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, and Project CENTRL. Dr. Wilshire also served as the Vice Mayor of Globe from 2008 to 2012.