Uniting Counseling and Nutrition

Photo by Duane Zehr at the booth of Grandma & Grandpa’s Farm LLC, Junction City Farmer’s Market.

Originally intending to simply hone her counseling skills through Bradley’s graduate program in community and agency counseling (now clinical mental health counseling), Kathy Corso, MA ’98 really was laying the groundwork for her life’s true passion — living better through clean eating.

“I was doing a lot of patient and family counseling through my job with the Alzheimer’s Association, and I wanted more background for it. Even though I had my undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma, I felt I could use additional skills,” she recalled.

While that choice had nothing to do with food, a personal experience with breast cancer did. It was then — dealing with treatments, learning yoga and working with a nutritionist — that she first began to understand the concept of mind, body and spirit. “In other words, the relationship between stress and healthy eating and how our bodies handle it,” she explained. Then, in 2000, she became the first executive director for the Cancer Center for Healthy Living (CCHL) in Peoria, Illinois.

Established to support cancer patients and their caregivers, CCHL not only had a nutritionist and counselors on staff but also helped promote the spread of Peoria’s early yoga movement. In addition, its workers created a wide variety of health-related programming and resources, including classes, workshops, books, videos and audiotapes. Earlier this year, CCHL joined with the Hult Health Education Center to form the Hult Center for Healthy Living, which combines CCHL programs with additional healthy living programs.

“The center’s goal is to help people going through the cancer experience with both their emotional and nutritional needs,” Corso remarked. “The whole idea is that you need to be physically, emotionally and spiritually well to fend off all life’s stressors, not necessarily just cancer but all stressors of modern life.”

During her time at CCHL, Corso’s two daughters visited Italy for four months, working on five organic farms and learning the value of local food production. “After my girls’ trip to Italy and my five years of working with cancer patients, we decided it would be great to be proactive, so the whole issue of healthy eating became the issue of being proactive about your health,” she said. That is when the three women decided to lease some land to grow food for themselves and to sell at farmer’s markets.

Promoting Clean Eating

Focused on the motto “Chi mangia bene, vive bene” (or “Who eats well lives well), Crow Creek Farm was the family’s first venture into the world of agriculture. After moving from a large field near Washburn, Illinois, to a more manageable urban garden site in Peoria, they eventually expanded their product line to meet the demands of their busy customers by adding handmade pastas, pestos and salsas to their assortment of produce.

Although the women sustained Crow Creek Farm for only a few years, Corso’s dedication to local food production remained, and she helped start and still assists with the Peoria Heights Farmer’s Market (now the Junction City Farmer’s Market). “I volunteer my time in any way to promote people buying local, using local and knowing what local food production is about,” she said.

That commitment led to her being recruited to help develop “Cook Well … Eat Well … Live Well” for UnityPoint Health – Methodist this past year. The four-part workshop series brings doctors into the kitchen for culinary arts training while teaching them about best practices in nutrition science, making them more aware of the direct connection between diet and overall wellness.

“I pulled together a team of registered dietitians and chefs who taught physicians culinary skills at the Illinois Central College Culinary Arts Institute. At each session, the doctors learned a skill, prepared a meal and heard from a keynote speaker,” Corso noted, adding the speakers covered the topics of food as medicine, reversing coronary heart disease, lifestyle medicine and childhood obesity.

“I've become a problem solver rather than looking for an ordinary job.”

— Kathy Corso, MA ’98

Admitting she never imagined her degree would result in some of the positions she’s held, Corso emphasized it all is related: “I think these innovative-practice jobs have come from what I learned in counseling from the behavioral health perspective. It gave me a better understanding of human behavior and motivation. … It doesn’t matter which decision you’re talking about: It’s all about internally understanding what motivates and helps us as individuals make choices that are in our best interest.”

A member of Chi Sigma Iota, the counseling honorary society, Corso has twice been recognized by Bradley’s Department of Leadership in Education, Human Services and Counseling (formerly Educational Leadership and Human Development). In 2002, she received the department’s Award in Innovative Practices for her work at the Cancer Center for Healthy Living, and in 2014, she was given its Alumni Recognition Award for the “Cook Well” program.

“I’ve become a problem solver rather than looking for an ordinary job,” she acknowledged of her varied resume. “Each of the situations identifies what I call needs in the community that aren’t being met by other programs or agencies.”

— Clara Miles, MA ’05