by Heidi Riley
“My lifelong dream has always been to help people by being a therapist,” says Erin Despres, one of the three recipients of the 2023 Phyllis Pitre Bursary for Adult Learners.
“It has been a passion and dream of mine since the first time I saw the TV show Frasier at 12 years old and thought – that’s going to be me.”
Erin went to Moncton High School and then on to UPEI to study music. “After a few years of soul searching, knowing that jobs as a classical saxophonist are really hard to come by and that I didn’t want to teach, my options were limited.”
She switched to the social sciences and completed two years in the Family Studies program.
At that point, she decided not to pursue a degree and instead took a Child and Youth Care Worker program. Holland College had a waitlist, so she chose to take the program at CompuCollege, where her two years of university plus two years of college earned her a Child and Youth Care diploma.
“I loved it,” says Erin. “CompuCollege classes ran half days, so I was able to work part-time. However, I had to put my dream on hold, despite my desire to continue, as I became a single mom.
“I was introduced to my very first experience with a therapist for my own personal situation, and once again, I found myself inspired with the thought, ‘This is going to be me.’ I spent years working two jobs, supporting myself, my now partner and our children, and developing a strong foundation for the future for them. I finally found the courage to continue my dream of getting my degree and becoming a therapist with much support from my friends and family.
“By going back to school, I want to set a good example for my children by showing them perseverance through continued service to the community and through work and education. I want them to never give up on their dreams despite the life journeys they may encounter. I hope that my work and my continued desire to learn gives them the drive to be an advocate for the vulnerable and deserving population.”
Now Erin is back at UPEI finishing her BA with a major in Sociology. She plans to go on to earn a master’s degree in counselling, which will take another two years of study. She says this is a perfect time to continue with her education. “I’m looking at finishing about five to six years from now. By that time, my daughter will be going to university.”
Currently, Erin is working full-time as a Community Support Worker with Queens County Residential Services (QCRS) while finishing her degree. She is working with neuro divergent clients – those living with Autism or other intellectual or physical disabilities.
“This is often the demographic that is overlooked when it comes to therapy, which gave me the desire to go in that direction.
“While actively working in the field, I was not prepared for the journey this would take me on. I discovered a vast world of empathy, grief, and disbelief for the lack of attainable resources for those who need them. Especially affected are those in the neuro divergent community who often fall between the unfortunate cracks. This opened my eyes to the social work sector and how limited our resources were.
“I began my journey as a Child and Youth Care Worker with Addictions Support to gain some applicable hands-on skills and life experiences. I also worked with CHANCES Family Centre as an After School Supervisor, and for almost three years with Canadian Mental Health Association as a Transitional Housing Support Worker.
“I watched people come through with anxiety and depression and other mental health concerns who had very few supports. We did our very best to find counselling services and housing and employment solutions. When resources are lacking, we are left watching people struggle. We want to help, but there is very little we can do.
“In the last 13 years that I have been doing this, I have struggled with that fact. I was finding myself burned out and having difficulty maintaining my busy lifestyle while helping other people maintain theirs. In the past few years, I met a therapist who specializes in compassion fatigue and moral distress. It is one thing to support others, but we need to support ourselves as well.
“People in the helping professions are burning out quickly, and we are having a hard time filling positions because they are tired. Having self-awareness and knowing that even though we are in a profession to help others, we need to practice self-care, talk about it, and get more support from our employers to ease the burden a bit.
“But everyone is feeling the pinch. These days, far more people are homeless and need more support. The human services sector is growing, and the employees are feeling run-down because there are not enough people to fill the void of the staffing shortage. It’s important to support the ones we have now.
“I have a strong desire to work with the vulnerable community and I want to continue this through therapy. My goal is to offer services to those dealing with empathic and moral distress and compassion fatigue, as well as offering services to the neuro divergent community.
“My strength is my ability to understand and appreciate empathic situations and offer support. However, this can be a weakness as I can take these emotions home with me. I have spent many years working and practicing emotional boundaries, which has been challenging but rewarding.
“If you are a chronic helper, it is hard not to get attached and want to do more. However, you can better help others if you have self-awareness and know that you need to make a boundary, take a break, and take time for yourself.
“What appeals to me about being a therapist is in my emotional attachment to people. When I see a single mom struggling to keep it together and wondering if it will ever get better, I know it will help if we talk about it and work through it together. I want to help people feel that they are not alone in their struggles.
“I was really happy and honoured to be awarded the Phyllis Pitre Bursary for Adult Learners. I am very grateful and excited to continue my journey with some supports.”