Story by Lisa Anderson • Photos by Joshua Jacobs
The Mission Doesn't End
Trauma-Informed Care & Community
Dignity Counseling greets visitors with a small hallway and big smiles. Brandy Forman, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and Sandi Cornell, LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor) are warm and inviting. Both felt a calling to help other people, but the paths they took to get where they are today were winding.
“When I was little, my mother [was] a nurse, but she [also] taught parenting classes. That was one of her things, and she would include me. I was kind of the guinea pig,” Brandy chuckles. “She would show other parents how to use behavioral techniques, and I just thought it was fun playing with all the other kids.
“When I started getting older, she would let me come with her on home visits. She was a little unconventional in that sense, but it was the Seventies. I began to see people living in all kinds of different environments—besides my middle-class, Ocala life. [I got to] watch my mom’s compassion and how she cared for people. So, it just got ingrained in me at an early age that’s what we’re to do as humans. We’re supposed to help each other and learn from each other. [It was] this really cool philosophy instilled at an early age that we really are all related. We’re all brothers and sisters.
“My dad’s an attorney, and I think from him I got this side of being analytical and logical and a strong sense of advocacy. So, those two combined must have formed my personality,” concludes Brandy.
Her first interaction with a therapist was with Catherine “Biddy” Farner. Brandy was 15 years old at the time. “My family’s divorced, and both parents remarried. So, a blended family. We needed some family therapy. We were going through some struggles,” she explains.
“[Biddy] was so compassionate [and] sharp and [was] a great advocate. She didn’t take any crap, but she was also so gentle. She was an LCSW. I never knew what that meant until I met her. That always stuck with me, because she made such an impact and showed me just because things have always been one way doesn’t mean they will always continue to be that way.”
Brandy didn’t dive right into social work. Instead, she began with International Studies and then moved to Montana, where she focused on Native American Studies with a plan to go into law. She eventually moved back to Florida. “When I came back, I was kind of to this point where you’re in an existential crisis,” she recalls.
Ultimately, Brandy landed in social work. She spent time working at PACE Center for Girls and Hospice of Marion County and with the homeless. “There’s been a big mix. I decided I was ready to go into administrative work, and that’s when I was hired as the manager for the Center for Life at Interfaith [Emergency Services].”
“The first day I met Brandy, I told her, ‘One day we’re going to do something.’ She just kind of looked at me like I had five heads,” Sandi says with a slight smile.
Before meeting Brandy, Sandi spent 30 years as a dental lab technician. She had returned to school for nursing but found herself in occupational therapy. However, the path she thought she was taking turned out not be the one she was meant to follow.
“God kept intervening,” Brandy explains.
“Yes,” agrees Sandi. “Telling me I was in the wrong spot. I fought with Him. Well...” She pauses. “Here we are. But you know what? I think He did it so I could heal, because once I healed, then I could help other people heal because I was there, too.”
“There is one thing about clients, they know if you’re a fraud. They can tell if you learned it in a book or if you’re legit. They’ll call you on it. People wonder, ‘Can you relate to me? Yes, you have book smarts, but have you lived it?’ People generally don’t care what you know. They want to know how are you going to treat them and can you handle them.”
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fireman. I always wanted to be a helper. I think that’s why [I chose] the dental field because I was helping people.”
Sandi spent the first year of her internship at the Heart of Florida Youth Ranch. “That’s when Josh [Sarmiento] was really getting his Ignite Community Counseling going. He wanted someone to volunteer over at Interfaith, and that’s where I met Brandy,” states Sandi.
Building a Team
“I had been working in administration at that point,” Brandy clarifies. “I’ll tell you something cool about Sandi: She drove from Orlando to work at Interfaith for free. Even when her internship ended, she kept coming, because she didn’t want to let her clients down. I have tremendous respect for her because of that.”
That respect grew when both Brandy and Sandi were frequently escorted by a major at the Ocala Police Department to the homeless camps throughout the area. They began to build a rapport with the people, and by the time Brandy and Sandi were recruited to develop a free community counseling program (FreeD.O.M. Counseling Services) by FreeD.O.M. Clinic USA, clients were ready to come in.
During their time at FreeD.O.M. Counseling Services, the team really began to work in harmony. Both were, and still are, passionate about putting the clients first. They practiced trauma-informed care and made sure anyone working with them—from the interns to the janitorial staff—was trained to know the signs of someone who is being triggered. They saw tremendous results at the clinic. Brandy was the Director and worked alongside Sandi, who was the Clinical Lead—both providing direct client care and supervising clinical staff and interns. After only 18 months, the clinic was regularly seeing approximately 200 clients per month for counseling. “That’s in addition to all the clients we saw for other support services, like recovery coaching and therapeutic management, which is unheard of when you are looking at the population we were working with!” exclaims Brandy.
Unfortunately, politics overcame the mission, and the funding for their program was cut, despite exceeding every goal they had set. “It was a big heartbreak for us when that stopped, but what we both felt like was just because that program stopped doesn’t mean the mission ends,” says Brandy.
“After the FreeD.O.M. [program] closed, I got sick and had a brain tumor. Sandi started scrambling to find places like free clinics and different places that would let her hang out her shingle and bring people in. All so clients weren’t going completely without services.
“I am so grateful that Sandi kept working the way she did, because I couldn’t for a while. It’s been the most amazing thing to be back here with her.”
Once Brandy had recovered from the brain tumor, she wanted to dip her toe into the water, and she reached out to Wear Gloves to volunteer one or two days a week. Wear Gloves had other plans and asked her to build a program called Dignity House, but when Brandy’s savings ran dry and there was still no funding for the program, she finally fulfilled Sandi’s prediction and joined her at her new office.
With a nod to all the good Wear Gloves does for the community, Brandy and Sandi formed Dignity Counseling, PLLC.
Passion, respect, and heart are evident in everything Brandy and Sandi do at Dignity Counseling. It’s hard to leave the office without feeling a sense of warmth and comfort. “We really see it as building community,” Brandy expounds. “We’re responsible for each other.”
“Mental health counseling services are provided in a safe, judgment-free environment. All treatment is tailored to each individual’s needs. We offer talk therapy, EMDR, and Neurofeedback.”
Brandy and Sandi plan to expand their clinic to offer both free and paid services. To learn more about their mission and how you can help and to see the services they offer, visit their website.
Contact them to learn more about their Counselor’s Breakfast and the free weekly group therapy.