This is the story of our family. My hope is that it will open the eyes of state government officials and church leaders all across our great state that may not understand the devastating impact cuts to the State’s mental health care will have on the children and families of Oklahoma.
“Hey, Holly. I’ve been meaning to contact you and get your husband’s phone number. I need some help with my kids.”
As the wife of a mental health therapist to children and their families, people come up to me regularly with this comment. Normally, I confidently hand out my husband’s card and encourage the person to give my husband a call.
I am confident, not because I believe my husband can fix all the problems every family faces with their children. My confidence lies in my husband’s humbleness, wisdom, and honesty in dealing with families who are struggling.
It happened again this past week in a restaurant while I was having Fall Break lunch with my own kids.
This time it was a sweet momma I met when she was a guest at the food pantry I supervised at my church. Though she was doing everything she knew to do at that time, she was struggling to make ends meet and having some trouble with her children. Her family had been through some traumatic experiences, so she came to our food pantry seeking assistance.
That was a few years ago, and I loved watching my church family wrap around her and her children.
But still. She struggles. Struggles to make ends meet. Struggles to know what to do as she is now a parent of teenagers.
I’m proud of this momma for reaching out for help. She cares about her children. She wants to make the right decisions. She is a good momma raising children who have been through some trauma in their lives.
I could see the desperation in her eyes.
I took a deep breath and held back tears and said what I always do.
“Please give Joe a call. He’d be happy to help you with your kids. That’s what he loves to do.”
I had to hold back the tears, because I didn’t have the confidence that I usually do, since I knew the reality of what is going on in our state government. Our family follows mental health issues closely because they directly impact my husband’s work. I could tell this momma had no idea the news we had been given just the day before.
Because of a budget crisis, mental health therapists like my husband are facing the reality that they may no longer be funded by the state.
The truth is. . . this isn’t where we thought we would be when we married 18 years ago when we met as students in seminary, studying to do church ministry work.
Believe me. Over the past five years of continued budget cuts to mental health in the state of Oklahoma, we have questioned our decision for my husband to leave “church work” and jump into the world of mental health care.
It’s been almost 13 years since we decided that indeed my husband should return to school to work on a second master’s degree to prepare him to spend his days doing what he is gifted to do, counsel children and their families.
At the time he was a children’s pastor at a church in Missouri. I was a stay-at-home momma of two in diapers. Having just purchased our first home, we had settled into a comfortable life in a new state with incredible friends who we knew would be friends for life.
The call to uproot and start over was clear.
Though we loved our church family we had made, it was through his six years as a children’s pastor in Oklahoma and Missouri, that he learned that children’s pastors really don’t get to do much pastoring. The job required him to spend so much of his time planning programs and events and going to staff meetings that there was little time left to help families work through the issues they were having with their children.
When he did have time to meet one-on-one with families, he realized he was not as prepared as he wanted to be to handle some of the deep issues families face in our society.
He found himself frustrated in his job, not having the time or the education he desired to do his favorite thing as a children’s pastor–counseling families.
We decided to pack up all of our possessions and move our family 14 hours away to Texas for my husband to return to school full-time to work on a second masters degree, this time in counseling.
The next two and a half years were full of craziness of me working full-time as a public school teacher, while Joe stayed at home with our two in diapers working on his counseling degree.
During those years, we thought his career path would include working at a church as a counselor, using his theology degree and his counseling degree to bring hope to families who came to the church for help.
Though we were ready to move anywhere in the country for my husband to live out this calling, our eyes began to turn toward our home state of Oklahoma.
In doing research, we found that most churches in Oklahoma don’t hire counselors. Due to the liability associated with mental health issues, most churches refer families to professional counselors. This made sense to us at the time. We knew from my husband’s pastoring days that he had little time to spend one-on-one with families. We had also read all the horror stories of churches getting sued for things pastors had said or done in counseling sessions. Outsourcing counseling seemed logical at the time. (What we now know is that the hole in this is that unless you have insurance to cover mental health, the cost can be astronomical. Unless families have great medical coverage, or their kids are on state insurance, most cannot afford therapy services.)
Since the option of working for a church in Oklahoma as a counselor was off the table, we had two options. Pick another state to seek a church counseling job, or take any counseling job he could find in Oklahoma to begin his supervised work to get his license.
The day I dropped my husband off to walk through the gates of the LE Rader Center in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, for an interview is etched in my memory as if it was yesterday. The Rader Center was a correctional facility for teenage boys from all over Oklahoma.
Seeing my gentle, soft-spoken husband walking through the high fence security check point made me smile from ear to ear. I took a picture and remember thinking, “This is a wasted couple of hours. Those boys walking around in prison uniforms will chew up my sweet husband and spit him out.”
I had spent several summers teaching summer school to “boys like them.” They can spot weakness from a mile away.
Despite my initial thoughts, a week later we found ourselves packing up our preschool aged kids and moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma for my husband to work with juvenile offenders.
The mistake I made in my thinking that day in 2008 was that my husband’s gentle spirit would be seen as a weakness to those boys. Instead, those boys had never met a man like my husband–someone who controlled his anger when they messed up; a man who was strong, yet treated them with the gentleness they craved.
It was beyond those high fences and security checks that my husband found his calling.
The past decade of working in the world of mental health for the state of Oklahoma has not been for the faint of heart. My husband learned this ten years ago when he went to his first professional development conference. With genuine concern for his own self care, he asked someone how they keep from carrying all the horrific stories they hear in sessions, home with them to their own families.
A group of seasoned professional counselors chuckled and told him they drink those stories away at home with alcohol. Indeed, he learned that drinking is the way many of his colleagues choose to cope with the stories they hear from children.
This past week’s announcement by the government officials of Oklahoma has again caused us to question why we even try. When we find ourselves doubting our chosen path in life, we take our minds back through the stories. We go through the stories of the vulnerable kids and families who are our “why.” These stories that make up the moments on our journey confirm the desperate need for someone like my husband to be involved in the mental health care of kids and families.
- The stories of working at the Rader Center when he wanted to bring every one of those boys home to our house for a few days of respite from the chaos of the correctional facility. Just a few weeks ago my husband circled the parking lot of a grocery store because he thought he spotted one of “his Rader boys” and wanted to go say hi.
- The stories he witnessed and heard from within that correctional facility that made him choose to leave the juvenile justice system because it seemed the place was anything but correctional for most of those teenage Oklahoma boys. It was those stories that made him decide he wanted to get to these children and families before they made decisions that forced them into the justice system.
- The story from his first week of his work as a school-based counselor when he became the safe place for a high school boy who held his father in his arms after his father had committed suicide.
- The story of a phone call from a mom wanting Joe to come with her to tell her young children that their dad had been shot and killed by a neighbor.
- The stories of the families who choose to foster children and adopt children who find weekly encouragement from my husband as they come to see him for guidance through his private practice contract with the state. We are thankful we are a part of a church that encourages families to foster and adopt and helps them to do this by referring families to counselors like my husband to walk with them on the journey of foster care and adoption.
The truth is I only know a small fraction of the stories. Because of the confidentiality nature of my husband’s line of work, he must carry most of the stories on his shoulders alone. Instead of drinking the stories away like his colleagues told him to do, my husband turns those stories over to the powerful God we believe is the only lasting hope for the darkness many Oklahoma children live in each day.
For the last decade, I have been honored to be the one to hold my husband when the pain of his work is overwhelming. When he can’t share the stories, I count it an honor to cry with him as he carries the burdens of so many Oklahoma children.
I am never more proud of what my husband has chosen to do with his life than when someone stops me like the brave momma did last week at lunch.
“Hey Holly. I’ve been meaning to contact you and get your husband’s phone number. I need some help with my kids.”
Every time I get this question, my heart beams with pride for my husband.
To the elected officials of my beloved home state of Oklahoma….The Buxton family is just one of thousands of families working diligently to help the children and families of Oklahoma. As a highly educated professional working daily for the state as a mental health care provider, my husband has absorbed the financial cuts you have dealt him over the past five years. With each one, he has taken a deep breath and pressed on for the sake of the amazing children of Oklahoma.
We have cycled through all the emotions. Anger. Frustration. Disbelief.
After we got the news last week, I even went so far as to call all of our state officials “fools” to some of my friends.
The truth is I don’t believe you are fools. However, the political game that has made political pawns out of our family and thousands of vulnerable children in our state is indeed FOOLISH.
Still, we are not without hope. The hope of my family lies in something much bigger than the state legislature of Oklahoma. We do not consider the future of our family to be in your hands. Our future is in the hands of a mighty God who has been faithful to provide for the financial needs of our family as we have committed to help families in need in Oklahoma.
Just last night, a room full of my friends prayed for our family, for you our state government, and for all the families you impact with your decisions on mental health in Oklahoma.
It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life!
This room of friends are in a class that I started at my church called Jobs for Life. In this room were a tapestry of people from all walks of life: A black man from north Tulsa who was referred by friends of mine who have been involved in the criminal justice system; Four Spanish-speaking friends who are immigrants from other countries; A few women of different colors who have escaped abusive situations; A sweet teenager who lives in a transition house for girls aging out of the foster system; Along with successful business people who have come together to help bring hope of a better future to the students in our class.
Last night, I was reminded that this crisis is not just a state government issue. This crisis is a body of Christ, the church, issue.
Now is the time for both the government and the churches of Oklahoma to rise up and fight for the vulnerable children in our great state.
As we wait for this to happen, this wife of a Oklahoma mental health therapist will be here continuing to answer with,
“Please give Joe a call. He’d be happy to help you with your kids. That’s what he loves to do.”