New Hope Counseling & Mediation Center

Laughter Heals Heavy Hearts

Photo by Jeff Silker

The outdated notion of private counseling being an hour of pure hell with a daffy German shrink asking stomach-churning questions goes out the window for good during an appointment with Joanna Hocker. She’s a Licensed Psychologist all right, but none like most people have experienced: with her seemingly perpetual cackle of a laugh and infectious Christmas glow she’s more a cross between Phyllis Diller and JoAnne Worley (of Laugh-In fame) than Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, both well-known therapists.

Given her recent tragic history though, it’s a wonder she has any laughter left.

She operates New Hope Counseling & Mediation Center in Blue Earth, Minn., on South Main just a few blocks down from Juba’s Super Valu. (Until recently she was known as Joanna Schulz.) Hers is a one-woman small business of hope for the disheartened, a caring service she’s been providing Blue Earth area residents since 1989. Though she does other counseling, her specialty is family and marriage therapy. Many business owners and others dogpaddling towards a divorce have found her helpful in keeping their personal lives, and businesses, above water.

Joanna, now 56, was raised in the 1950s as a full-blooded Norwegian and conservative Lutheran, and had grade-school dreams of becoming a missionary. But while attending Lutheran Bible Institute (later Golden Valley Lutheran College) in the mid-’60s, she was turned off by the whole idea. Given the school’s limited curriculum, the only alternative for her besides missionary work was to be a church or parish worker.

And then that Phyllis Diller laugh. “I’m dyslexic,” she says as if delivering an opening line to a joke. “Can you imagine a dyslexic church secretary?” She raises her hands over her head and laughs again. “And remember: there was no spell check back then!”

Though she laughs heartily now, her dyslexia was no laughing matter while growing up in Wisconsin. Dyslexia is a learning disorder in which letters on a page appear to reverse themselves, run together or be upside down. She taught herself how to read after graduating from high school. A church bulletin written by a severely dyslexic individual would be a confusing hodgepodge of letters.

In 1966, after teaching herself to read and earning a two-year degree from Lutheran Bible Institute, her career path began winding through a long, Rube Goldberg-style maze of diverse counseling experiences. At the entrance to the maze, while working in Biloxi, Mississippi, she went through a personal epiphany. “A mentally retarded man of 18 came into my life,” she shares of a late ‘60s experience. “He knew I could sing, was involved in a coffeehouse, and would also play organ at church. Every time something musical was going on at his school, he would say to me, ‘You’ve got to come to my school to see the band marching outside. Come to see me march in the band.’ So I went once, and here this young man who could barely put one foot in front of the other was banging out a beat for me on an oatmeal container.”

She could sense the cleansing effect music had on her 18-year-old friend. “So I decided to pursue music therapy as a career, and eventually received a Bachelors in it from the Univ. of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1972,” she says. Searching diligently for work after graduation, she had to settle for her only decent offer, one at a hospital in Eau Claire where she “did not want to be,” she says. She would spend twelve years there singing, fingering soothing piano tunes, bringing in talking books to unconscious patients, and hiking the sterile hallways of psychiatric, pediatric, intensive care and physical disabilities floors.

Six years into her stint in Eau Claire, she had the nagging sense that she wasn’t doing enough for her patients, and wanted to help them more. So she began graduate study at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Stout, and worked on the side part-time at a domestic abuse center and also with people who were seriously mentally ill. She graduated in 1984 with a Masters in guidance and counseling, which was quite an accomplishment for a woman who hadn’t learned to read until she was 20.

Then in 1986 she accepted an Austin, Minn., position counseling teens at a residential treatment center, and of that experience says, “Not many people like working with teens, but I prefer them. I seem to have a special gift of working with teenagers.” Her work there turned out to be super preparation for what would become one of her passions in later years: mediating divorces involving children. Joanna claims she would still be at that residential treatment center today if it hadn’t been for its management’s attitude. “They expected me to work 80 hours a week with no time off for vacations. And when I did take a vacation they treated me like a traitor. There attitude was, How dare you leave us! The more vacation I took, the worse they treated me.”

At this point she erupts into laughter again, another volcanic blast replete with a hot lava flow of fun, but this one could serve a different purpose: it could be to soothe a lingering and unpleasant memory.

After back-to-back vacations to South America and out West—time she had earned for hard work on the job—and the poor treatment she received upon her return, she felt it was time to mosey on. “After that I really wanted to move to Wisconsin where my family lived,” she says, “except that the best job offer I received was with a Fairmont counseling agency. Their agency was the designated mental health provider of counseling services for Faribault and Martin counties. I was hired in 1988 to work in Blue Earth and manage the Faribault County office.” For clients that lacked insurance, Faribault County would reimburse the counseling agency.

In Blue Earth while working with the agency in 1989, Joanna was able to garner the necessary hours and work experience—and pass a state test—in order to become a Licensed Psychologist (L.P.) It would make it possible for her to open her own small business. By being licensed she no longer had to go through a counseling agency to receive third-party health insurance payments from her clients; she was eligible to receive the payments herself. (As much as 75 percent of a licensed psychologist’s income can come from third-party insurance payments.) At the same time in November 1989, she was having problems with her employer.

“I’m a wave maker,” she says. “I fight for what is right. I was—and am—very outspoken, which was sometimes not that appreciated by my supervisors.” Since she hadn’t signed a noncompete agreement, she was free to set up her own counseling business serving the same population as her previous employer. Her clients were given a choice and all of them chose to stay with her. So she rented an office, hung a shingle and had a telephone installed.

IT TAKES A SPECIAL PERSONALITY to cope with all the emotional roller coaster rides and broken promises a troubled client can take a counselor on. “I’m really disappointed when a person doesn’t follow through, keep appointments, or at least try a suggestion I’ve made,” she says. “Theoretically, we both have a job to do, but really it’s the client who has to go through the pain and the change. If they are resisting usually there is a good reason, and usually that change is too painful for them. As a therapist, my job is to pull the pieces together, help make sense out of nonsense, and give that information to the client. But I can do only so much. Sometimes I take my clients to places they don’t want to go, yet I know they need to go there.”

For instance, one male client said he was dating a woman he described as “wonderful.” He had no reason not to marry her except that he thought he naturally had trouble making commitments because of past bad relationships. That was when Joanna stepped in. “Perceived parental abandonment,” she says, “is at the root of 99 percent of all problems in people I work with. And it’s what causes people to engage in all sorts of antisocial behavior.”

In the case of the man with cold feet, Joanna claims she helped him realize that his root problem wasn’t as simple as he had first thought. “And so, after we worked on the real problem,” Joanna says, “he was all right. The last time I ran into him he was married with three children.”

She used a visual technique called a “genogram,” one she creates with all her non-mediation clients, in which a client’s emotional, relational and mental family history is documented over several generations. Again, in the case of the cold-footed man, she says, “When I did his genogram, I discovered that his father was highly critical of him, always telling him that he never did anything right. In truth, this man was a very competent person.”

In mediation of divorces involving children, Joanna describes a three-part process: the first and second involve slicing up the couple’s assets and household property, and the third is creating a parenting plan. When it comes to mediation, she urges the couple to cautiously make their own decisions rather than lean too heavily on the opinion of a lawyer. Getting a lawyer involved in divorce mediation “might start an adversarial relationship between the couple,” she says. “If they decide in mediation what is fair to both, then there should be no argument about it later.”

She says the creation of a parenting plan is her strong suit “because I have a good idea what children need.” Her approach covers all the bases. For instance: which church will the child attend? and how will they get to church when one parent isn’t interested in it yet the other is? What will they do when one parent begins dating? In most divorces those questions aren’t asked or answered, she says, and “then later you get mad at each other all over again.” A good mediation ends in a detailed, written agreement that is given over to a lawyer for him or her to put into legal language.

Being a small businessperson also means marketing, and Joanna does it well—perhaps too well. She always has had a strong desire to educate people on interpersonal issues. About four years ago she began a weekly radio program on Blue Earth’s KBEW in which she discusses topics as parenting, stress, time management, conflict resolution and mediation. The program works too well at times because she offers free advice. But that doesn’t bother her one bit. “I tell people that I want to work myself out of business,” she says. However, she has received calls in her counseling practice from radio listeners wanting to learn more about a topic.

Not Reading Until Twenty

Joanna Hocker, owner of New Hope Counseling & Mediation Center, has struggled with dyslexia her entire life. She remembers going to school in fourth grade and her mom asking her teacher if she was mentally retarded because she couldn’t read. To her credit, the teacher said many intelligent children have trouble reading. She was a “C” student in high school, and had to work hard for it.

“I taught myself how to read after high school,” says Joanna. “Why would someone who can’t read buy a speedreading book? But that’s what I did.” From the speedreading course she learned when reading to take in whole phrases rather than individual words. “The more I try to break down an individual word,” she says, “the less sense it makes.”

One Tragic Road Trip

Let Joanna tell this story in her own words: “On May 7, a Sunday morning, my husband Jerry and I were driving to my cousin’s funeral in Minneapolis. We didn’t have any children because I had been a single career person until I was in my 40s. Jerry was my first husband.

“As we were driving Route 30 east of Mapleton toward I-35, two kids who had been out all night after prom fell asleep in their moving car. They were coming straight at us in our lane. My husband swerved toward the ditch, and I thought we had passed them safely until they clipped our rear bumper. We became airborne, and spun in circles and then rolled.

“Being inside an airborne vehicle is an absolutely unbelievable, indescribable experience. I was totally out of control. I always ride with my shoulder strap a little loose—and frankly I’m glad I did. My husband had multiple fractures of his ribs and collarbone caused by his seatbelt. They had to cut him out. Even though he was still alive, I knew he was going to die. He kept saying, ‘My chest is crushed, my chest is crushed.’

“Now I offer chronic pain services as part of my counseling. That week was a bad one for me: my cousin, husband and uncle all died that week.”

Love Chinese Style

Joanna first met Jim Hocker on June 24, 2001, on a cruise boat on the Yangtse River while she was on a missions trip to China. Jim was with a tour group. They exchanged pleasantries throughout the cruise, and nothing of note happened until Joanna sensed God moving on her heart.

“On the last day of the cruise, when I was preparing to disembark,” she says, with yet another laugh on the tip of her tongue, “I saw Jim up on the balcony. I sensed that God was telling me to go up there, and to ask Jim to pray for me. So I did. At the time, I was assuming he was a married man. I had absolutely no attraction toward this person and had no desire to get to know him. I was just trying to be obedient to what I thought God was telling me to do.”

Two weeks later and back in Blue Earth, Joanna sent Jim and everyone else on board the cruise an email letter. Jim wrote back. Joanna returned his message. Jim then called. A little more than three months later they married. When he pulled up to her front door in Blue Earth that October they hadn’t seen each other since their prayer on board the Yangtse River cruise ship.

Jim, 74, is a retired Air Force JAG (Judge Advocate General) and lawyer.

© 2003 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine