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Jessica Burzlaff

When Haven Counseling Center announced it would be shutting its doors Feb. 22, a shockwave rippled through the community. Since 1981, Haven has served thousands of families in Kern County through case management, parenting classes, and counseling services. In the 2011-12 year, Haven helped reunite more than 140 children with their parents.

As with any human endeavor, Haven is not perfect, and there were some issues that ultimately led to its closure. However, what I hope the community will be left with is not the mistakes that were made, but an understanding of the transformative power the agency had on its clients over the past 32 years.

"Haven has been a blessing to my family," said Desiree Anaya, a young mother and client at Haven for the past year. "I've learned to talk more with my children and explain to them how I feel. I couldn't do that before."

Anaya, who was court-ordered to take a parenting class, discovered there was more to Haven than parenting classes. After disclosing some difficulties she was having with her oldest son, the Haven staff referred her to the Guided Visitation program, in which a trained staff member could observe her interactions with her children and offer parent coaching. Anaya said that what she learned in those sessions, as well as in her class, "helped me so much with my son. Even my mom has noticed that things have improved."

She also credits the people in her class for supporting her during a difficult year. Tearing up, she said, "Meeting the other people in class has helped me. I didn't feel so alone."

"I'll miss the class itself," said Mary Roalston, a client since August. "It feels like family. I was just getting to where I looked forward to group every Friday." Roalston, like many of Haven's clients, was not happy to find herself in a court-ordered parenting class, but eventually realized that she was learning about more than just parenting. "I am learning patience and how to deal with people. It's really changed my life."

Haven has been changing lives by providing services that treat the whole family, not just individuals who come for counseling or classes. In the spring of 2008, Kinship Support Services was created to provide support to people who are raising the children of family and friends. It was created to help keep children who were not able to live with their parents in a home with someone they knew and out of the court dependency system.

My own experience at Haven as a marriage and family therapy intern has been transformative as well. When I started working at Haven in March 2010, I was still reeling from the combination of grief over the loss of my father and the stress of graduate school. The warmth, respect and love that poured out from all the staff was healing in a way I did not expect.

"Haven Counseling was the best thing that ever happened to me," said Diane Bilyeu, a former client. In 2003, she was a single mother of three, struggling to make ends meet and in a bad relationship. After her children were removed by Child Protective Services, Bilyeu was angry and terrified. "When I first started, I had no self-confidence. I had never been in trouble before and felt like a loser parent."

Through counseling, Bilyeu was able to identify her own childhood abuse and trauma that was preventing her from becoming the mother she wanted to be. "I needed someone to listen to me, a sounding board. Now, I can be a better parent to my 6-year-old daughter." Nearly 10 years later, Bilyeu has gone back to school and gotten certificates in both business and typing, and is finishing up a degree in human services from Bakersfield College. Her dream, she said, was to someday work at Haven and help other parents the way she was helped.

Our community will be facing a huge void when Haven shuts its doors. Although it is heartbreaking, Kern County is a better place to live because it existed. Bilyeu summed it up best: "By the time you leave, you're a part of the family." This week, with Haven itself leaving, Bakersfield is a little poorer. I only hope we can fill the void with something as dynamic.

Jessica Burzlaff is working toward her license in marriage and family therapy in Bakersfield. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.