Troubled children, couples in ailing marriages, overloaded mothers, the single, the divorced, casualties of the workplace -- these are some of the clients who talk with Audrey Bridgforth-Chapman when they visit the Howard University counseling service.
Chapman knows what many of her clients are going through. And her visitors say she is able to convey that sense of understanding to the people who come to her for help.
A slender, poised woman with a sure bearing and attentive countenance, Chapman said she has, indeed, "been there."
"I am the superwoman," she said, neither boasting nor complaining. "In some fashion I have gone through all of this. Divorce, separation, family counseling, balancing multiple roles, stress management. Obviously I haven't been a black male, but I certainly have dealt with enough men -- father, brothers, lovers -- that it's not unfamiliar."
Ray Dates, a member of one of the black women's support groups Chapman organized at Howard, said she found Chapman "a very good model for other women. She always sounds like she's been there. She's competent and comfortable to be around."
Once preoccupied with students' exam jitters or career decisions, the counseling service has expanded its horizons and is making its services accessible to the distressed throughout the city.
In a move that Director Carolyn R. Payton sees as symbolic, the counseling office has been moved from its quarters in the former president's house to the basement of the old Freedmen's Hospital Building at 6th and Bryant streets NW.
Payton said the staff of about a dozen counselors, social workers, psychologists and interns still primarily serves Howard students, whjo do not pay. But more and more non-students, who pay up to $35 an hour based on income, are using the counseling service, which is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The counseling service's clients increased from 408 last year to 482 during this school year, including an increase from 93 to 113 "community clients."
"We know there is a need and we have the resources here. It was a question of bringing the two together," Payton said.
Much of the credit for the agency's increasing visibility and growing clientele, said Payton, goes to Chapman, a self-assured woman who has been on the staff two year.
She has spread the word on Carol Randolph's "Morning Break," the "Charlie Rose Show," and in repeat visits to Howard's two outlets, Jerry Phillips' "Morning Sound" (WHUR-FM) and Ann Sawyer's "Evening EXCHANGE" (WHMM-TV). She also has done magazine and newspaper interviews.
Her appearances at seminars and conferences, along with her work as a counselor, have earned her a growing reputation as an expert on troubled lives in the Washington area.
The titles of some of her recent talks include "Stress and the Holidays," The Superwoman Syndrome: Integrating Multiple Roles," "Making It as a Single Black Woman," "What Makes a Family Work," "Children of Divorced/Separated Parents," "Blues, Blahs and Depression" and "Explaining Death and Dying to Young Children."
"I guess I just get something out of seeing people find solutions.It's not that I really give them so much," Chapman said. "I don't really feel like I'm giving these great revelations. People find pieces of themselves that were there when they came in. Sometimes they just need somebody to help pull (solutions to their problems) out of them."
Not long ago a single, working mother of a 6-year-old boy, turned to Chapman when her son continued to disrupt his classroom. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, had had repeated sessions with her son's school counselor, to no avail.
"After two visits," the mother recalled, "Audrey was able to put her hands on exactly what the problem was. She is fantastic."
The boy revealed that he was lonely for his father's large, closeknit family in California, where he had spent vacations, and his mother agreed to send him there year-round on a trial basis.
"It hurts," the mother said. "I've done all the crying, but I know this is the best thing for (the boy)." said she has, indeed "been there."
Chapman was 10 years old and growing up in an increasingly well-off New Haven, Conn., home, a happy and secure environment that collapsed one day when her parents decided to divorce. Her father, she said, went out of her life.
"My world was shattered," she said simply. But it wasn't until long after, well past the dissolution of her own five-year marriage, followed by extensive therapy and sundry work experiences, that she settled on her profession.
Chapman, now in her late 30s, recalled the extremely close relationship she had with her father, a self-made janitor-turned-business-executive, and the fierce bond she later developed with her mother, "the pillar of my ability to survive." As a gesture of respect to her mother, whose family name was Bridgeforth, she often calls herself Audrey Bridgeforth-Chapman.
"This lady, who had no training and was not prepared for a separation," got a job doing housework, then worked as a teacher's aide and later went back to college for an education degree while working and raising four children, Chapman said. "I don't know how she did it. That was my first experience with superwoman.
"She always sent out the message that the most important thing for any individual was self-love. If you didn't believe in you, . . . feel that you had something to give, you had nothing anyway."
Having married before college, Chapman then decided "that I wanted more than that." She left her job as a pediatrics aide in a New Haven hospital and became an assistant teacher at a private school. That job led her to study for an associate's degree in education, then a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She counseled adolscent girls, worked as codirector of an inner-city care center, and later directed a parent-run cooperative school that involved entire families in teaching.
"It was then that I began to see how important was the connection between separation, divorce, physical illnesses and all the kinds of shifts that happen in families and how they impact the lives within them," Chapman said.
Her work for a master's degree in education and human resources counseling from the University of Bridgeport (Connecticut) included intensive work in family systems. In the process of understanding family dynamics for her degrees, Chapman said, she entered "a whole year in therapy, working through my unresolved feelings about my father leaving, the stronger relationships I wanted with my mother and sister, and my own introverted, passive, nonassertive self."
"People have choices to make and you have to know yourself . . . what's going to sit best with your life. I guess, given where I am, right now anyway, I'm comfortable with who I am."
Chapman came to the counseling service by way of the Howard University Institute for Urban Affairs and Research, where in 1979 she helped arrange a national conference on the black male.
Her work at the counseling service is one of many activities. She recently organized a fund-raiser for the Coalition of 100 Black Women, helped set up a directory of black women for the University of the District of Columbia and contributed to a study of counseling needs for families of Atlanta victims. She also confounded and became president of the new Cooperative Connection, an information and resource sharing organization for women.
Chapman last month won one of six places in the doctoral program in clinical community psychology at Howard University. Candidates usually are sought fresh from under-graduate school, according to Dr. Michael Smith, the department chairman.
"We're very high on her," said Smith. "We were just very impressed with her as a confident, mature, intelligent black woman and the things she's been doing in the field."
When asked where she thinks it will all lead, Chapman responded with characteristic, utter confidence: "To the first black family institute, which I intend to create right here.
"I don't want anyone to think that I don't have my low periods," said Chapman, who lives alone in an apartment in Northern Virginia. "I do get depressed and lonely. I wish I were much more stable financially and didn't have to work so hard for a living."
But unlike many of the people who come to her for help, Chapman said, she has learned to manage such feelings.
"I feel that I am a rich person, spiritually, socially and emotionally."