Johnson on saving lives through counseling

Seven years ago, Kelly Johnson came to Rwanda on a two-week group trip. Something about the country spoke to her and after two other short trips, the Canadian national packed her bags and eventually moved to Rwanda in 2011.
Kelly Johnson moved to Rwanda in 2011. (Photo by Donah Mbabazi)
Kelly Johnson moved to Rwanda in 2011. (Photo by Donah Mbabazi)

Seven years ago, Kelly Johnson came to Rwanda on a two-week group trip. Something about the country spoke to her and after two other short trips, the Canadian national packed her bags and eventually moved to Rwanda in 2011. Today, she is the co-founder of ‘Live Again Rwanda’, an organization that was established to serve the wounded, traumatized and emotionally broken through the pains of their past, to seek healing and counselling. She talked to Women Today’s Donah Mbabazi. Below are the excerpts.

Where and how did your career start?

I started my career in counselling in Canada. I completed my undergraduate degree in counselling and then worked in the area of gender based violence in a women’s shelter in Canada for several years before completing my Master’s degree in counseling. Before moving to Rwanda, I worked as a counsellor for a national counseling organization in Canada and had my own private practice as well.

I became a counsellor because I wanted to help people work through the emotional and relational struggles in their lives.

How and why did you start up this organisation in Rwanda?

I came to Rwanda for the first time in 2009 on a 2-week group trip to attend a conference for pastors and lay leaders on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and provide some brief counseling services to people in the community. On that trip my heart was deeply touched by Rwanda. I felt a connection with the people and the country in a way that I never had before. I sensed a calling developing in me to help restore the emotional brokenness many Rwandans were experiencing. Following my return to Canada, I returned to Rwanda on two more short trips and finally moved here in 2011.

During my first year, I was asked to go out to Bugesera and teach counseling skills in a small village church to 8 students. My colleague and co-founder of Live Again Rwanda, Amos Furaha, translated the course for me to the students. Through the experiences with my students, I felt the Lord growing this vision inside of me to create counseling and training centre, where Rwandans could learn the basics of counseling and assist their fellow Rwandans in the journey of emotional healing.

What does the job of a counselor entail?

The counselor first recognizes that no two people are alike. Each client understands themselves and the world around them based on their personal experience. As a result, it is of vital importance that during the counseling process, the counsellor does not try to fit clients into his/her idea of what they should be and how they should act. The role of the counsellor is to enable the client to explore many aspects of their life and feelings, by talking openly and freely.

For the uninitiated, what do counseling sessions entail?

Counselling is a relationship of trust and confidentiality. It is less about advice giving (UMUJYANAMA) and more about the process of journeying with a person through life’s challenges and healing hearts (ISANA MUTIMA). It involves the client sharing with their counsellor their emotional pain and hurt, relational struggles, suffering and trauma. Counselling is about the art of listening and sojourning. It is about lessening hurt and pain, about helping a client to gain a new sense of themselves, gathering up some of the broken pieces of their lives and living healthier. Effective counseling allows the client to focus on feelings, experiences or behaviour, with a goal to facilitate positive change.

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Kelly Johnson

What feedback do you get from those who have benefited from your counseling?

Many of the people that I have seen over the years have indicated how helpful counseling has been to their lives. When a person is committed to the process of transformation and healing, they will get as much out of the counseling process that they are willing to invest.

Is it draining to be part of strangers’ troubles?

My job is certainly one that is both rewarding and does come with compassion fatigue. It is of vital importance that I am committed to self-care weekly for myself in order to be able to have the spiritual and emotional energy I need to be able to journey into the dark places with my clients. Empathy is not always easy, but I love the work that I have been designed to do.

What’s the best way of handling such a profession so that clients get the best results?

It is very important that a professional counsellor is well trained with the appropriate education. Counsellors need to have worked through many of the struggles in their own lives and willing to seek out counseling services for themselves when difficulties in their lives start to surface from time to time. Counsellors are not immune to pain and struggles in their lives. So it is important to be self-aware, to know one’s limits, to set good boundaries with their clients and have a good work/life balance.

What are some of the challenges in the course of your work? How do you deal with them?

Although this work is very rewarding it does have its challenges as well. On a daily basis we are walking into the dark places of people’s lives with them and although it is a great privilege it is also emotionally fatiguing at times. Sometimes we are not able to see the progress in people’s lives as perhaps they conclude the journey early or their issues are so deep and complex that working out their healing can take significant time.

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