Skip to content

Choices helps clients find answers

June 5, 2013

by Kelly Pfeister

Without looking, it’s easy to mistake the office of Choices Counseling and Consulting for a particularly cheery spring day.

The sound of birds chirping is coming from a small sound machine, in an office space located on the second floor of 532 Western Ave. Inside the office, the sitting area in the second floor office is filled with an eclectic mix of decorations and home comforts – a water cooler, along with mugs and assorted teas are set up in one corner. A framed poster from a Van Gogh exhibit is hanging on the wall, and on another a highly detailed and antique-styled world map. Grown up magazines sit on a short shelf besides children’s books.

ArleneThis counseling office is welcoming by design, because the founder of Choices, Arlene Lev, a social worker and licensed alcohol and substance abuse counselor, wants to make her clients feel as comfortable as possible. Choices offers support for a wide range of clients, from issues like depression, to sexuality.

“At Choices Counseling and Consulting we specialize in working with individuals struggling with sexual orientation and gender identity issues, as well as LGBT people addressing all kinds of life issues – parenting, anxiety, addictions, relationship concerns,” Lev said.

When Lev first started Choices in 1986, there wasn’t a lot of support for those who were seeking counseling related to their sexual orientation. In the newspaper CommUnity, which serves the Pride Center of the Capital Region, no other therapists working with lesbian and gay issues were listed, Lev said. “Now, 30 years later there are many trained therapists serving our communities, with diverse interests and skills, which is truly wonderful for people seeking competent clinical care.”

Now, Lev has three associates at Choices, plus five interns from The Sage College of Albany, The University at Albany, and Widener University. Each of them have between 10 and 15 clients.

What defines Choices is its philosophy about therapy – Which includes the individual, and the people in their life.

“Choices has always maintained a family perspective, working not just with individual clients, but also with partners, children, parents, siblings … viewing the people seeking our services as members of larger families and communities,” Lev said.

Choices different approach is what makes intern Josh Redcliff appreciate his internship through Sage College, where he said he wouldn’t get an experience like this anywhere else.

“What is unique about Choices is that we provide therapy around sexual orientation and gender identity,” Lev said.

More recently, Lev has been fielding calls from parents of children that show nonconforming gender behavior, as young as four or five years old. Her business is cyclical – Lev said that there are “seasons” when talking about what sort of issues clients come in with at what time. When she opened 27 years ago, she saw a lot of people struggling with coming out, especially married men who were struggling with their sexuality.

Lately, Lev said, it is more common to hear about gay couples thinking about having children.

LGTBQ couples have to consider a list of factors when planning a family, according to Claudia Stallman, project director at the Lesbian and Gay Family Building Project. Since their organization first started in 2000, the amount of families that they utilized their organization has grown from zero to 670 households in the upstate New York area. Stallman said that if a LGBTQ couple is interested in starting a family, they have many choices: Will they adopt internationally, or choose a donor? If the couple is gay, will they have a surrogate mother, or if they’re a lesbian couple, who will carry the child?

Stallman also said that there are many other factors that LGBTQ couples have to take into account, like making sure the pediatrician for their child is welcoming to LGBTQ families, and that the schools they choose are supportive of the family.

In addition to family and individual therapy, Choices also offers group counseling for a number of different people. There are two transgender groups, one for female to male, and another for male to female, parents with gender variant children, one for teens, and a support group for LGTB people, which is run by the director of Crime Victims. Members of these groups come from places as far as Vermont, Syracuse, and Binghamton, and the meetings are held in the office on Western Avenue.

“In many ways Choices has been lucky,” Lev said. “Since my work is well known nationally, we’ve not had to do much advertising. I’ve been working as a social worker in the Capital Region since 1986, and have also taught at the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare, so I know many social workers in the community who refer to us.”

The busiest time of year for Choices is September and January – “as people get back to work after the holidays, they are often thinking more about their lives, and making personal commitments to change,” Lev said.

Choices also tries to be involved in the community. This past April, Lev co-chaired The Empire Conference Providers Day with Dr. Carolyn Wolf-Gould.  The two presented “The World Professional Association for Transgender Health: Standards of Care. The event was sponsored by The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Project (SOGI), which Lev is the Project Director of, the University at Albany, the Albany Medical Center and the Pride Center.

She said that Choices is “actively engaged in continuing education through staff supervision, clinical consultation, and attending trainings and workshops, so we are learning about new research.” They work also work “closely with LGBT organizations like the Pride Center, In Our Own Voices, and Rainbow Access Initiative,” Lev said.

“Sex is still a taboo topic for therapists, and few therapists are trained in family, couple and sexuality issues,” Lev said. Education is a very important component to Lev and her role at Choices – she created the Training Institute for Gender, Relationships, Identity, and Sexuality in an effort “to try to give to a younger generation of clinicians opportunities that were simply not available to me as a student 30 years ago.”

Acey Mercer, a former intern at Choices and now an educator and senior consultant in the Training Institute for Gender, Relationships, Identity and Sexuality, said, “My hope is that by providing engaging and interactive professional workshops, attendees will develop greater awareness, terminology, insight, knowledge of diverse gender and sexuality issues, as well as how to support loved ones, students and employees dealing with these pertinent issues.”

He came to work at Choices as an intern while pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Work at The University at Albany School of Social Welfare.

“Having been an active student learner, I’ve come to truly believe that the client is the expert in their life and I am simply along for their journey in order to offer support and provide possible paths which they may not have been familiar with or explored just yet,” Mercer said. “I see all clinical sessions with my clients as the mediums through which together, as a team, we explore possibilities and strive for self-growth, acceptance and emotional resolve.”

“I enjoy being able to work closely with a variety of individuals and to develop a trusting rapport with them. Being able to be an active participant in one’s life through exploration of their thoughts and emotional experiences is not only intimate but it is extremely humbling,” said Mercer. -30-

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: