Counseling families with a sick child

November 4, 2011

By Tim Belter ’13

Facing a serious illness is a terrible task for anyone, but when the patient is a child, the challenge is greater still. Counseling alumna Laura Sollenberger ’98 helps children and families handle these difficult diagnoses.

Sollenberger is the counseling supervisor for the Pediatric Supportive Care Program at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria. She and her staff counsel children and families when a child has been diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness.

“Working with children that are ill can be very stressful, but also very rewarding,” she said. “We focus a lot on improving their quality of life.”

She went to the University of Illinois as a pre-med student, but eventually switched to psychology and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. She worked briefly as an associate at a counseling office before attending Bradley to receive a master’s degree in community counseling. She wanted to use her biology background and counsel people in a hospital setting.

“When I worked in the office, I started dipping my toes in the water of the hospital environment by working with patients and families with cancer,” she said.

Treating children and their families in a medical environment is particularly challenging.

“When a child may only have a short time left to live, the counseling treatment has to be more intense,” she said. “We work to support the entire family unit.”

The diverse education and guidance Sollenberger has received prepared her well for this position. In addition to her degrees from Bradley and U of I, she became a certified specialist in thanatology, the study of death and bereavement, through the Association for Death Education and Counseling. And although she’s only been in this position for one year, she has over a decade of experience with the Children’s Hospital.

“I had a lot of guidance that developed me as a professional,” she said. “Bradley’s program does a great job of building the skills you need, and internships and practical experience help you understand the nuance and art of counseling.”

Because she works in Peoria, maintaining a close relationship with Bradley has been easy for Sollenberger. She teaches a graduate-level course on grief counseling and her small staff at the hospital includes two Bradley interns.

“Bradley interns have been fantastic,” she said. “One that we had last year, we hired for one of my old positions.”

The task she faces every day at work may be tough, but it’s a necessary job and one for which Sollenberger is well suited.

“It’s a different skill set from regular counseling,” she said. “You really need to rise to the challenge.”