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Alison McGregor, LMFT: “The One-Eighty is a place for everyone.”

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Alison McGregor, the One-Eighty Co-Executive Director, Counseling & Resources Director, LMFT has an impressive title that echoes her accomplishments during her tenure with the One-Eighty program, although she wouldn’t use the adjective to describe herself. 

The One-Eighty was originally intended to be a teen center where local high school students could hang out after school; in 2002, in Lodi, California, there was nothing to do. Unfortunately, the founders of One-Eighty could never have anticipated the depth and breadth of the needs of the kids that showed up. “When they first opened it, they had this idea that teens at large would frequent the teen center,” Alison related. “What they found was that the students who made the One-Eighty teen center their home were typically defined as at-risk. And that’s at risk of having harm done to them because of their environment, maybe because of their neighborhood, or doing harm to themselves, just making foolish choices.”

Responding to Need
“They became overwhelmed because they were not expecting that crowd and weren’t quite sure how to care for them. They have different needs than the average teen,” Alison explained. So, they closed down. They regrouped. They got more help. They also changed their focus. These kids didn’t need something to do after school; they needed mentors and this community needed help. This is when Alison and Jake McGregor got involved.

Alison seems to have been made for this role. Her parents spent her childhood helping inner-city churches find resources to start their own youth programs and build up their communities. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, majoring in psychology and minoring in biblical studies. When it became clear that One-Eighty needed a professionally trained counselor, Alison headed back to school to obtain her master’s degree and later become licensed as a marriage and family therapist. Meanwhile, One-Eighty, at the time led by Jake, was busy working out the details and preparing to open its own counseling center; it came to fruition in 2008. 

A few months later, school districts in Lodi and Stockton started contracting with One-Eighty to do semester-long group and individual programs with students who are identified as needing some sort of intervention but being outside the scope of what the school can currently offer. “They have really good school counselors already. And they have mental health counselors that help with students who already have an IEP or have additional needs. But we’ve been hired to go in and to work with the general education students, which is most of the students. There are students who haven’t been identified as having a diagnosis necessarily, but they’re acting out in school or they’re suffering from depression or anxiety, suicidal ideation, relational questions or conflicts. In this little niche, we’re able to provide mental health counseling. It’s really a collaboration,” Alison said of the role the program plays in the preexisting counseling, social and academic support framework at the schools. 

Coping Skills
Remember the kids from your high school—the quiet ones who never seemed quite put together or angry ones who seemed to blow up at the weirdest things but were generally friendly most of the time? There are a million reasons kids end up falling through the cracks; many are dealing with ongoing trauma that they don’t talk about. They don’t have healthy coping skills and can’t communicate their pain in an appropriate, safe manner. These aren’t inborn abilities that everyone has; they are skills that must be learned. 

As Alison described, in a perfect world, a person would learn from their parents as a young child and get better through experiences with their peers, but if their parents lack these skills, no matter how much they love their children, they can’t teach them to cope or communicate effectively. The programs are 18 weeks long and are primarily done in a group setting. Their methodology is based on WhyTry LLC, an evidence-based framework that uses principles from dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These programs are tailored to the students involved; some of the issues they must overcome are truancy, anger management, self-harm, eating disorders, gang involvement and substance abuse.

Today, the counseling center at One-Eighty offers a wide range of services. They have expanded into Stockton and Galt, offering comprehensive mental health programs on over a dozen campuses. There is free counseling for people who are directly affected by crime through the California victim compensation program. While their focus is making sure that disadvantaged kids and their parents can get the counseling they need regardless of their financial situation, in recent years people of all demographics have started using the counseling center. “People are now being referred by other people who have found success here, so the counseling center is really a resource for the whole community,” Alison said. “If you’ve ever needed to find a counselor and realized you don’t know where to start looking; a place like this where a large number of counselors are congregated is an invaluable resource.” 

Creating Belonging
It isn’t enough to teach coping skills to kids; if their neighborhoods are dangerous, they’re still at risk. In 2011, Lt. Bill Alexander of the Lodi Police Department was in charge of the gang task force. He had a plan to remove high-level gang members and leaders, but he knew that would create big gaps in the community. While they are malignant, gangs fill a void in a community; they promise protection and belonging. In Lodi, they needed to be replaced with something healthy and productive. Alexander approached local nonprofits and churches. One-Eighty answered the call. Volunteers moved into these neighborhoods where they were visible, helpful and friendly. They engaged with their new neighbors, seeking the goodhearted people who wanted their neighborhoods to be safe and happy, helping them become community leaders. The communities began to knit themselves back together, leaving no need for gangs. People could belong in their community and they could take care of each other.

To a lesser extent, the police also had concerns about the local skate park, which was operating on a skate-at-your-own-risk basis. To counter the reckless behavior but not kill the fun vibe of skating, One-Eighty placed a virtual adult in the parks. In 2012, the organization acquired a 35-foot Winnebago and converted it into a skate shop, snack shack, video and photo lab, complete with computers and video games. The mobile unit is most likely to be found parked at an area skate park. 

All Are Welcome
The Teen Center is a well-lighted, well-supervised safe space where all teens are welcome to come, hang out, get a drink or snack and join a club or sign up for an excursion into the nearby wilderness. In the clubs, teens can learn to make fancy coffee drinks, garden or rock climb. The center also has practical offerings such as tutoring and classes on how to effectively do a job interview. This is a point Alison is most passionate about; the One-Eighty is for everyone. “I’m always cognizant that we don’t want people to shy away from sending their kids because they think, ‘The Teen Center is where the bad kids go,’ because, to be honest, these kids are super resilient and smart and funny and kind. They just happen to come from neighborhoods or situations where they’re at a deficit So it’s not where the bad kids are. These kids have a lot more stuff to work through because life is genuinely hard. It’s hard for everybody; even if you’re the wealthiest kid on the planet, your life is still going to be hard,” she emphasized. “There are going to be challenges, but they’re just different challenges. The kids we have here have faced some pretty difficult situations. But the Teen Center is a safe place. These kids are actually phenomenal.”

Alison displays determination to heal the neighborhoods and the people in them. “I want to invite everyone in and not exclude anyone. I want to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots because that is the real meaning of community,” she affirmed. “It isn’t people with means donating money or goods to people without but never being in the same room with them. That can only lead to pain. Being avoided is a terrible feeling. Community is coming together, learning together, learning about each other and from each other without judgment or fear. 

“One-Eighty isn’t just a great place for disadvantaged teens. It’s a great place for teens who want to learn a skill or meet new people or need a tutor. It’s a place where the leaders of tomorrow can meet, become friends, share ideas and start building bridges toward a more equitable future where everyone feels safer, healthier and more capable of achieving their goals.”