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Walden Magazine // Jan 01, 2014

My Mission Possible: Reclaiming Childhood in Southeast Asia

Jodi Vermaas offers stable homes and mental health counseling to orphans in India and Myanmar.

Jodi Vermaas

Jodi Vermaas.

“My family traveled to Central India to visit an orphanage as missionaries six months after I started my MS in Mental Health Counseling at Walden. There, I saw an overwhelming need for mental health counseling for kids who were living in group homes or on the streets, many who had been severely abused. Advocating for mental health in a community where kids don’t have shoes or pants, let alone access to medical doctors or schools, seemed ridiculous.

“I knew almost immediately I wanted to create a nonprofit that met the desperate needs in this community, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I met faculty member Dr. Judy Green during a residency. She was doing similar work with youth in Africa and suggested I train local paraprofessionals in appropriate triage counseling techniques. I loved the idea of both empowering locals and getting kids immediate help. That spurred the development of what became my nonprofit, Priority One Worldwide.

“Dr. Patricia Brawley, my crisis and trauma professor, then taught me the importance of securing a victim’s safety first—both physically and emotionally. I learned I had to get these kids into stable homes where they would be fed and clothed—and feel safe—before any real counseling could start.

“After I finished my coursework, Walden connected me with another mentor and former Walden student who supervised my counseling practicum and internship and introduced me to a host of effective techniques and resources to use when working with survivors of trauma from culturally diverse backgrounds. I am particularly excited about eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which may be effective in multicultural settings.

“Since we began, Priority One has helped approximately 200 kids who live in India and Myanmar. Some have been rescued from local gangs and placed with foster families, and all have been supported emotionally and financially, benefiting directly from Priority One’s commitment to making sure that 100% of our donations go to the children’s housing, education, and physical and emotional support. We ultimately hope to work with local government offices to connect them with adoptive families.

“While our home base is southern Florida, my family spends months in India each year so I can train staff and work with the kids. Recently, two board members moved there full time, and we hope to do the same one day soon.

“Walden inspired me and supported me in this work. Every course it offers, whether statistics or human development, is focused from beginning to end on making a positive impact on our world. I’ve always wanted to help people and to effect social change, but Walden gave me the skills and access to research, resources, and other professionals to make this passion my life’s work.”

Jodi Vermaas ’13, an MS in Mental Health Counseling alumna, founded Priority One Worldwide to build orphanages and offer mental health counseling to children in India and Myanmar.