Margie O’Neal hasn’t let life’s adversities or even a global pandemic slow her down in her commitment to working with adolescents and teens struggling with substance use or her volunteer work to reform the justice system in Texas. O’Neal, who initially never thought working with adolescents would be her long-term environment, shares that now, she couldn’t see herself working with anyone else. As a member of the 2020 Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) for Addictions Counselors cohort, she has set her sights on growing in new ways as she finishes her master’s degree; regularly volunteers for numerous statewide organizations; and balances her time as a wife, mother, and grandmother.
When she began working as a licensed chemical dependency counselor (LCDC) at a residential treatment center for adolescents, O’Neal quickly knew it was her calling. It was in this private-pay facility, with a larger level of resources, where she was able to work alongside and learn from teams of licensed professional counselors, other LCDCs, and medical doctors. Her interaction with these other team members enhanced her knowledge as a LCDC and inspired her to further her own education so she could dive deeper into treating individuals who also face issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Soon after, O’Neal earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and addictions counseling, graduating with honors. While in school, she took a special interest in classes focused on adolescent developmental psychology because of her desire to continue working with this population. She feels strongly that in order to ensure today’s youth become tomorrow’s leaders, society cannot continue to lose them to substance use or to the criminal justice system.
O’Neal, who has celebrated 11 years in recovery herself, knows her work is important and essential, especially in the area in which she works. Two years ago, O’Neal moved from the private-pay facility to a state-funded residential treatment facility for adolescent males who are court ordered to receive treatment. Located in east Texas, O’Neal works to bridge the gap in an area where, as a bilingual counselor, she is a vital resource for her community. She uses her skills to connect with her clients and their families to help ensure a more holistic approach is taken, as her clients will typically return home after their stay of 90–120 days is over. She has also noticed the longer she has worked in this field that many of her clients have co-occurring disorders. In these cases, she works with them to help develop their more basic coping skills before diving into the facility’s core curriculum, which addresses their substance use and abuse.
It is important for O’Neal to connect with her clients’ families, whether a biological parent or relative or a foster parent, in order to continue the support system at home. Many of her current clients are first generation children from Mexico or other Central American countries, and she knows that a lot of them face even more layered challenges as a result.
She hopes of course that her clients won’t need to return to treatment and that they can gain the ability to self-manage their co-occurring disorders through a connected and close support network. O’Neal shares that her celebratory moments come when she sees clients work to rebuild and repair damaged relationships with their families and hold “goodbye groups,” which is when a client who is leaving sits in a circle with peers and staff and they share moments of achievement and encouragement with one another. She also celebrates when she gets calls down the road from past clients or parents of clients who check in to let her know they’re doing well and staying clean.
The facility where O’Neal now works, Azleway, was recently named the 2020 Helping Hand Project Award Recipient by Mueller, Inc., a Texas-based company specializing in steel and metal buildings and metal roofing. O’Neal and the staff have big dreams for their new activities building, which will break ground in October 2020 on the 100-acre property that is also home to two residential houses, a ropes course, and horse stables. The new space will become home to a vocational training space for residents as well as provide an area for fitness programs and other wellness activities. O’Neal would also love to see the facility grow to serve adolescent females in the future.
Though she works full-time and is working toward completing her master’s in clinical mental health counseling through Walden University, O’Neal still makes time to give back to her community both locally and statewide. O’Neal jokingly shares that her husband says her idea of self-care and “taking time off” is volunteering and taking care of others. She is a regular delivery driver for Meals on Wheels and even recently cut the grass of a local elderly resident whose mower was broken.
She volunteers with the Texas Association of Addiction Professionals and was awarded the Volunteer of the Year award in 2011. She also enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and looks forward to post-pandemic times when she can visit with them in person more often.
O’Neal also devotes a large amount of her time working to reform different aspects of the justice system in Texas. She currently has several family members impacted by the prison system, including a son, brother, and grandson. She was recently elected to serve as a board member and the Vice President of Education for The Second Chance Women’s Council of Houston, which helps women coming out of prison earn their GED. O’Neal hopes to help include a substance abuse curriculum into the current programs, as so many coming out of prison still struggle with addiction issues.
For many years she has been involved in Truth Be Told, an organization out of Austin, working with women both behind and beyond bars to provide transformational programs through self-discovery. Over the years, O’Neal has participated in a variety of their programs and events and even during the pandemic continues weekly video discussions with those in the Beyond Bars program.
She has also served on the leadership board of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), which works to end mass incarceration and foster safer Texas communities. Within the TCJC, she also works closely with the Women’s Justice Coalition, which meets monthly to discuss legislative changes to better the conditions for women in the prison system in Texas. Last year, they were successful in getting a few of their “dignity” bills passed in the Texas legislature.
Their proposed bills included everything from expanding jail diversion programs for women who are pregnant or are primary caretakers to requiring that facilities provide additional and better-quality feminine hygiene products. O’Neal and others marched and rallied on the Capitol steps on International Women’s Day in 2019 to show support for these bills and for all women who have experienced dehumanizing treatment behind bars.
As she continues in her studies and serves her local and state organizations in a variety of ways, O’Neal is excited for her future and is inspired by her other MFP Fellows and the work they’re doing in their own communities. She is looking forward to the rest of her time in the MFP and hopes to utilize the learning opportunities to continue her growth both personally and professionally.