TWI recognized for service to refugees

Staff of The Women’s Initiative and the International Rescue Committee at the award ceremony in July. The IRC cited the impact of the work of TWI therapist Joanna Ajex, MA, second from left, who provides counseling to refugees at the IRC office in Charlottesville each week.

Staff of The Women’s Initiative and the International Rescue Committee at the award ceremony in July. The IRC cited the impact of the work of TWI therapist Joanna Ajex, MA, second from left, who provides counseling to refugees at the IRC office in Charlottesville each week.

The Women’s Initiative has been named the 2019 “Service Partner of the Year” for its work with refugees in the state of Virginia.

The award was given by the Virginia Refugee Resettlement Network “for outstanding contributions in the field of refugee mental health.”

In its nomination of The Women’s Initiative for the award, the Charlottesville office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) cited the impact of the work of Joanna Ajex, MA, MD (Russia), TWI therapist and education coordinator, who provides individual counseling to refugees at the IRC office every week.

Dr. Ajex and The Women’s Initiative ... help refugees at a crucial moment in their lives.
— International Rescue Committee

“She is adept in working with interpreters and clients from diverse backgrounds,” the Charlottesville IRC staff wrote. “Having her as a resource allows our clients to access mental health services in a timely and efficient manner. Whereas psychiatry providers focus primarily on medication, and other psychological services are often restrictive in their availability, costs, and language capacity, Dr. Ajex and The Women's Initiative circumvent these challenges to help refugees at a crucial moment in their lives.

“These appointments, free of charge for IRC clients, greatly reduce the barriers to care that refugee and immigrant families typically experience. Long waits for appointments, difficulty with scheduling and transportation, unfamiliar locations and limited access to interpretation as well as a general mistrust of mental health care regularly prevent individuals from accessing help. TWI's contribution and commitment have mitigated these barriers significantly.”

The IRC also noted its collaboration with TWI and VCU on a psychoeducational program that increases understanding of the mental health impact of resettlement on refugees. The program, called Trauma-Informed Cross-Cultural Psychoeducation (TICCP), empowers leaders of refugee and immigrant communities to build awareness about stress, trauma and culture. Ajex co-leads the program with Ingrid Ramos, LPC.

“The Women’s Initiative has demonstrated exemplary vision and leadership in the field of mental health for a number of years, and has generously contributed their services to the refugee community through our partnership,” the IRC wrote.

Nature connection helps clients on path to healing

Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, was the first program director of The Women’s Initiative and continues to be a board member today. In 2017, Schuyler founded Wildrock, a nonprofit that provides educational, recreational, and therapeutic programs in nature. Partnering with The Women’s Initiative, Wildrock has connected our clients with chances to explore ecotherapy. As one client shared about a half-day retreat at Wildrock’s nature center: “I had an amazing day of calm and connection with nature and new friends. It was a day of healing.”

What is ecotherapy? Who can benefit from it?

HEALING OUTDOORS.  Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, helps connect TWI clients to opportunities for self-care and stress reduction in nature at Wildrock.

HEALING OUTDOORS. Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, helps connect TWI clients to opportunities for self-care and stress reduction in nature at Wildrock.

Carolyn Schuyler: Ecotherapy supports people in developing a reciprocal, healing relationship with the natural world. The work can take many forms—equine therapy, horticulture therapy, expressive art in nature, the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku [“forest bathing”], stewardship practices, deep appreciation and observational practices, and scientific inquiry. I believe ecotherapy is at its best when people are not only receiving the broad range of social, emotional, cognitive and physical benefits of spending time in nature but also giving back to nature. Ecotherapy practices can help people develop an embodied understanding that their own well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature. There is now a robust body of research revealing that a connection to nature is an important predictor of subjective well-being and ecological behavior.

How did your interest in ecotherapy develop?

I grew up with the freedom to play with my sister in a fossil-rich creek and forest area by my house. I believe my own adult happiness is fed by the reservoir of positive experience I had spending long, relaxed periods outdoors early in life. I have noticed in my years of being a therapist that this was true for many of my clients, too. Time and time again, I heard people telling me that their most hopeful, empowering experiences were times when they were immersed in nature.

How does ecotherapy fit into the overall mission of The Women’s Initiative?

The Women’s Initiative provides many avenues to support the resilience of women. Given the strong research supporting nature connection as a means for reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma, it makes perfect sense that TWI would support women in exploring nature connection as a form of self-care. When I opened Wildrock, I came to TWI and offered to run Nature Nurture retreats. This started a wonderful collaboration that has now expanded to TWI offering walking groups in town and workshops at the office to support people in strengthening a healing relationship with nature. Having helped found TWI when I first moved to Charlottesville 11 years ago, it felt fitting to start ecotherapy work with TWI in this new chapter of my career.

How can clients incorporate ecotherapy practices into their healing process?

It can be as simple as women putting pictures of nature up around their desk at work (even looking at pictures of nature has been found to improve productivity and reduce stress). It may mean that women take regular mindful walks, find a special location in nature to visit repeatedly, or help with local stewardship initiatives, such as planting pollinator gardens. On our retreats, we provide women with a list of experiences that are evidence-based approaches to ecotherapy.

Tell us about your vision for the partnership between TWI and Wildrock.

I hope that we will continue to offer Wildrock retreats in the fall and spring, workshops on how to incorporate nature connection into a treatment plan, and regular in-town meet-ups to support ecotherapy practices. I would love to do a research study to explore how practices specifically impact anxiety.

This article is adapted from our Winter/Spring 2019 Newsletter.


Upcoming Ecotherapy Offerings

Connecting with Nature and Ourselves in Winter

Monday, March 11, 5:30-7 pm

Join with other women to use the wintertime quiet to cultivate restoration, creativity and connection. We will use collage, mindfulness, writing, movement and nature elements to cultivate gratitude and self-love and set positive intentions. Facilitated by Shell Stern, MSW.

Registration optional: (434) 872-0047 or

Nature Nurture Retreat
at Wildrock

Saturday, April 13, 9:45 am-4 pm

A day outside to learn how to use nature to deepen your self-care and reduce stress.

Wildrock is a nature park and barn center tucked away in the Blue Ridge foothills 40 minutes from Charlottesville. Transportation to Wildrock will be provided from TWI Main Office, 1101 East High St.

Facilitated by Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, Shell Stern, MSW, and Hannah Trible

To register: or (434) 872-0047 x114


Resilience Resources for A12 & Beyond

The anniversary of a traumatic event can be a difficult time. And for many in our community, August 12 and its aftermath are a part of ongoing historical and racial traumas that impact everyday life. Caring for ourselves and our community is so important, and the following strategies compiled by the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition can help us this summer and beyond.

Seek Emotional Safety

  • Notice what things cause you to feel stress and anxiety
  • Reduce media exposure
  • Do things to help cope with stress, such as exercise, journaling, meditation, or prayer

Stay Connected

  • Keep routines with family and friends
  • Stay involved in activities & groups that make you feel good
  • For mental health info & referral, call 434-227-0641 or see

Foster Hope & Work for Change

  • Notice negative thoughts
  • Reflect on personal and community progress
  • Participate in activities that promote equity and safety for all
  • Do something to help others

Support Children

  • Limit media exposure
  • Support children to make a positive difference in their community
  • Answer kids’ questions honestly
  • Discuss concerns with teachers/professionals

The Women's Initiative and other community organizations have many offerings to provide support and care around the anniversary of August 12 as well as the historical and racial traumas that came before and have happened since. On Saturday, August 11, The Women's Initiative is offering a Free Walk-In Wellness Clinic at our Jefferson School City Center Office from 11 am-5 pm. For a comprehensive list of emotional support services throughout the summer, visit the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition.

Community education on cultural humility

Working toward enhancing our cultural humility approach throughout our organization and the community, The Women's Initiative is co-sponsoring a community education session on cultural humility and implicit bias this December.

Eboni Bugg, LCSW, RYT will be presenting the talk on implicit bias and cultural humility on Monday, December 4, 5:30-7:30 pm, at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. 

"We feel as health care providers that we want to make sure we are doing our part to cultivate a community that is culturally humble and is aware of biases," Jackie Martin, the director of community benefit at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, told CBS19 News. Sentara, UVA Health System and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center are also co-sponsors.

The presentation is free, but space is limited. RSVP by Monday, November 27 by calling 1-800-SENTARA.