Alexian Brothers' bilingual therapists reach out to Polish Americans

September 15, 2013


When clinical therapist Margaret Myszka appeared at Polish-language Masses one Sunday last fall to tell parishioners at Chicago's St. Constance Church about a new bilingual counseling office she had established at the church, the response was immediate.

"On Monday, I had already received 10 phone calls," said Myszka, a Polish immigrant who provides counseling in her native language.

She gave more presentations at St. Constance over the following months, introducing herself and describing what she had to offer. "This way, more people know about me," she said. "I'm getting booked pretty easy and pretty fast. It was the perfect idea, a great idea for the Polish community."

Her work is part of a larger effort on the north side of Chicago and its suburbs, where Alexian Brothers Parish Services sends Myszka and two other Polish-
speaking therapists into Roman Catholic schools and churches to counsel people who otherwise might not get the support they need.

"I saw the need with the Polish people, because it's how you imagine, the Polish people came here as immigrants," Myszka said. "Some of them have a problem seeking help. They don't speak English or don't speak it well enough for the therapist to understand."

Resource therapist Margaret Myszka, right, of Alexian Brothers Parish Services meets with a client in a counseling session.

Myszka sees clients individually and in groups. Sessions concern "anxiety, anger issues, depression — the normal stuff that everyone has and is dealing with," she said. Myszka also offers one support group for grieving adults, another to help women who are victims of domestic violence. A group called "The Rainbow" helps children who have lost someone close to death or divorce. Myszka meets with teenagers transitioning to high school or college, and she's starting a group for single mothers.

Myszka studied theology in Poland before immigrating to the U.S. 15 years ago. While earning a master's degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola University Chicago, she interned with Alexian Brothers Parish Services, the community outreach arm of Alexian Brothers Health System of Arlington Heights, Ill. Myszka's experiences as an intern led to a partnership between the counseling service and St. Constance, a traditionally Polish parish on Chicago's northwest side.

The therapists charge clients on a sliding scale — fees range from about $30 to $60; special arrangements are considered for those unable to pay. Myszka said the therapists reach clients who might otherwise have struggled to get access to therapy.

In some cases, the parents in client families know little English while their children speak it well. "Sometimes I have to speak in English to the teenager and in Polish to the adults," Myszka said. And sometimes, that language disparity causes family issues. "Very often that is a gap between parents and kids," she said.

Dealing with a new country creates its own stress for immigrants, Myszka said. "Here there is a lot of freedom — they have a problem sometimes to connect with themselves, to connect with tradition, with all the things that are going on."

The Alexian Brothers Parish Services unit is based in Schaumburg, one of Chicago's northwestern suburbs. The 10 counties that make up the Chicago metropolitan area are home to about 940,000 people of Polish descent, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. That's about a tenth of the nation's overall population of Polish Americans. While most of Alexian Brothers Parish Services' Polish-speaking clients are Roman Catholics, the agency serves people regardless of religion.

Alexian Brothers has been offering Polish-language counseling sessions since 2008, said Rita J. Rippentrop, the agency's director. "We try to respond to the need around us." The Parish Services' therapists work with clients in three languages, conducting about 230 counseling sessions a month in English, Spanish or Polish, said Rippentrop. (In the past, they also offered counseling services in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines.) Counseling sites have been established at nine churches, and one of the agency's two Spanish-speaking therapists gives advice to a broader audience during a weekly online radio show.

"This is a great partnership that we've been doing with the churches for almost 20 years," Rippentrop said. "We had four therapists and now we have 13." Additional counselors are embedded in 16 parochial schools in the Chicago and Joliet dioceses.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.