Growing up in Meridian, MS, Manda Smith was always intrigued with the deeply rooted, family oriented culture of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. This interest stayed with her, so much so that after graduation from Mississippi State University’s Clinical Psychology program, she decided to stay close to home to care for the Choctaw people.
For five years, Manda drove an hour from Meridian to the Choctaw reservation to deliver counseling services at the Choctaw Children’s Advocacy Center. After those five years, she decided to put down roots closer to the reservation and now resides in Philadelphia, MS. The work is challenging, but she has found the Choctaw community to be just as she imagined as a child;like a tight-knit trusting family , , and fiercely loyal. Through her consistent, extended commitment to the tribe, Manda has forged similar bonds with her clients and created a platform to improve mental health.
“Once I gained the trust of my clients and their families, members of the community welcomed me with open arms,” she said. “Wherever I went,to the store orto the stickball games, I would run into someone I knew, and they would make the effort to introduce me or make me feel comfortable,” Manda shared. She added that this bond with the community has allowed her to expand her role on the reservation, including serving on the Choctaw Community Planning Coalition.
Manda works with children and adolescents in the community who are victims of sexual abuse. After working on the reservation for two years, Manda’s clinical supervisor mentioned that the clinic was a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) approved site, making her eligible to apply for loan repayment awards to help her manage her graduate school debt.
“It only made sense to apply,” Manda said. “I was already home, doing what I love to do and serving the people I wanted to help most. This program has enabled me to stay here and serve the community I love, and which I hope to serve indefinitely.”
Within the Choctaw community, just as is common in other areas of the nation, instances of sexual and substance abuse are often kept quiet which Manda, an associate member of the American Psychological Association (APA), knew was counterproductive to the healing process. A survivor herself, she understands the significance of having access to quality counseling resources and draws from her own experiences to offer the best treatment for her patients.
“My clinic assigns me a manageable caseload, which affords me to flexibility to travel and see clients,” she said. “It not only enables me to strengthen the trust and bond with my clients, but also addresses issues like the high dropout rate because clients can stay in school instead of traveling long distances for all the appointments.”
“I love my community, and the work I do is truly rewarding,” Manda said. “In the Choctaw culture, it is a sign of trust to make eye contact. When I reach that point with my clients when our eyes meet for the first time I know I am in the right place, doing what I was born to do.”