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OUR HOMETOWN: Lived experience inspires career

Cher Sytsma started her counselling practice, Safe Harbour Counselling and Wellness, in 2019
Cher Sytsma at her counselling practice, Safe Harbour Counselling and Wellness, in Williams Lake. February 2024. (Kim Kimberlin photo - Black Press Media)

Registered therapeutic counsellor Cher Sytsma knows from personal experience and observation that reaching out is the first step in getting help.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Just take the first step and reach out,” said Sytsma. “You’re really brave for making the first step. You reached out, you made the phone call, you sent the email, you know. Give yourself kudos for that because that’s the first bite of the big elephant.”

Sytsma recalled the sense of relief she felt when she finally reached out to a doctor and was diagnosed with post-partum depression, something the doctor said they could “totally deal with.”

“I was like, okay, somebody believes that I’m not losing my complete self here.”

Sytsma spent most of her upbringing in Williams Lake with friends from youth group, singing and playing piano — music being something she loves — and summers working as a camp counsellor at Camp Homewood on Quadra Island. She loved these summers, digging her feet into the sand and finding a new sense of independence and adventure.

After graduating high school in 1991, she went to a short-term Bible school in Hawaii called Youth With A Mission, later heading to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia for mission work. Upon returning to Williams Lake, she unexpectedly faced her first bout of depression.

In 1995, she joined a baseball team where she met her husband, Kevin, a summer student in town working in the forestry industry. He stayed and they married in 1997. Their first son was born in 1999, and Sytsma transitioned from sales and administration to being a stay-at-home mom. She spent the next few years suffering from post-partum depression.

After the couple’s third son was born, Sytsma began teaching kickboxing, later taking fitness teacher training courses.

“I really enjoyed that … I mean, I was the girl who was always picked last in gym class. I am not athletic in the least, but somehow in that time I got in really good shape. But I was not very emotionally healthy and still had a lot of body image issues,” Sytsma explained.

In 2012, the family of five moved to 150 Mile House — a big change but one they all adjusted to, their three boys enjoying the great outdoors. More change came when Sytsma’s stepmother passed away, a death she described as significant. It was then her husband asked if she had thought about becoming a counsellor.

“It was something that I had in the back of my mind for a while, but I always thought I would never be able to do it because I had, you know, a lot of mental health issues myself, and I have since I was probably 19.”

After further consideration, she began her diploma at Kelowna College of Professional Counselling through distance education — the same year one of her sons graduated from high school, she home-schooled another son and her husband recovered from back surgery.

Upon her own graduation, she requested a solo vacation, packing her bike, kayak and yoga mat atop her car and heading out to Lummi Island, Washington. Her few days away were wonderful, although cut short by the 2017 wildfires. Unable to get home, the family reunited in Salmon Arm.

A month later, she returned to Williams Lake and was approached by Janice Breck from Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to submit her resume. She spent the next two years working for CMHA before starting her own practice in 2019.

Safe Harbour Counselling and Wellness lies in a quiet neighbourhood off Lakeview Avenue. Sytsma has counselled people through the big and small, working with children and youth, individuals and couples. She’s walked with people through depression, anxiety, life changes, trauma and grief. She really enjoys helping people discover their self-worth, which often involves internal discovery and setting boundaries.

“None of us can get through completely on their own,” said Sytsma. “We all need help sometimes, whether it’s big help or little help.”

Sytsma is coming up on 27 years of marriage and her oldest was married last year.

“It’s feeling like it’s flying by.”

She encourages people to reach out for help, even if it feels it’s only for something small.

“Take action on the little things cause, you know, doing one load of laundry is way easier than letting it pile up.”

For the big things, remember the elephant and take one bite at a time.

READ MORE: COLUMN: Do you feel like you’re failing at motherhood? Me too

READ MORE: OUR HOMETOWN: Food brings connection to self, community, environment

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Kim Kimberlin, Local Journalism Initiative

About the Author: Kim Kimberlin, Local Journalism Initiative

I joined Black Press Media in 2022, and have a passion for covering topics on women’s rights, 2SLGBTQIA+ and racial issues, mental health and the arts.
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