California State University, Long Beach
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McMicken, Students Make a Real Mission Statement

Published: June 15, 2010

For students, there is nothing like real-life experience. In that regard, the Los Angeles Mission has been a godsend for those studying in CSULB’s Department of Communicative Disorders.

“We’ve really had some spectacular opportunities for students at the L.A. Mission and we’ve been able to provide some really wonderful services for people in the rehabilitation programs and also our friends and neighbors who reside in the areas,” said Betty McMicken, an assistant professor who serves as the department’s volunteer liaison to the mission. “I’ve had students doing externships at the L.A. Mission Anne Douglas Center under my supervision with patients they would not generally encounter. Some are very unusual cases and students have had some experiences they would not normally be exposed to. Sometimes we’re called across the street to see patients at the L.A. Christian Community Health Center because, as an example, somebody there might be severely stuttering or having difficultly talking or perhaps has come in for help and can’t talk at all, maybe because they had some kind of stroke or a head injury.”

McMicken has been in the rehabilitation business for 45 years and thought she had seen it all, but immediately realized that wasn’t the case at all when she began volunteering at the mission.

“I have taught about and I have read about, but I have never seen the cases I see at the mission,” she said. “Some of them are neurological disorders that are just very rare, some of them are people who have had problems since they were a child and it’s just never been addressed.”

Thank You, Anne and Kirk

McMicken’s involvement with the center was, quite possibly, something that may have never happened had it not been for a stroke. It was not her stroke, but that of legendary film actor Kirk Douglas, who suffered one in 1996. Ten years later she introduced herself to him at a Christmas party and soon thereafter became his personal speech therapist. It’s a relationship from which they both have benefited and that has changed her life in ways she never could have imagined.

“Kirk Douglas is amazingly inspirational,” said McMicken. “Because of my privilege to assist him and thus introduction to the L.A. Mission, my students and I have been blessed with many opportunities.”

In the mid-1980s, plans for a new L.A. Mission were under way, but the funds had not yet been raised. Enter the Douglases. In 1987 Anne and Kirk Douglas made a visit to the mission and, five years later, the doors of the new facility opened. Thanks to Anne Douglas, it included a much-needed facility specifically designated for women. Not only did the Douglases donate an enormous amount of energy and money to rebuild the mission, they were the largest benefactors along with the Ahmanson Foundation.

“I attended a luncheon honoring Anne Douglas in 2007 and I was overwhelmed by what she had been doing quietly for decades and with little recognition. It was something that she and Kirk just did,” said McMicken. “When I was taken into the Anne Douglas Center which is her jewel, I was absolutely amazed at the hands-on effort of both Anne and Kirk. At 93, he is such a remarkable spirit. When he talks about giving, my students say, ‘I want to volunteer; I want to do that.’”

And they do.

“Dr. Betty” Gets Students Involved

An offshoot of the efforts is that McMicken, along with her students, has been able to write three research papers on the unique clients they have seen at the Anne Douglas Center/L.A. Mission. One of the papers has been published, two are being reviewed for publication and another is in progress.

“So that too has been a very unique experience for my students,” she said. “They see a patient through treatment and then write about it. Those are things we couldn’t normally do. The other thing is that we have been able to present at professional meetings, poster sessions and short seminars on these very interesting patients that we see. The enrichment of the experience just overflows.”

Her students certainly concur and are truly grateful for the opportunity put before them.

“In addition to her work with the L.A. Mission’s students, Dr. McMicken has created opportunities for her CSULB students,” said student Jesse Coyle. “Leading by example, she has opened the door for us to participate. Personally, she’s allowed me to bring my part-time balloon twisting abilities along. With her encouragement over the last two years, we’ve put together a group of volunteer balloon makers and our goal is simply to bring smiles to the faces of the children of the Los Angeles Mission.”

The balloon event just exploded, according to McMicken. It began with basically just Coyle twisting balloons into creative pieces of art, but the demand got so great that he had to hold workshops to teach others how to do it so they could assist him.

“Jessie has been a star, absolutely, of our efforts to help in the mission,” said McMicken. “You should see the smiles we put on kids’ faces down there and the wonderful intrigue they have of watching him makes these balloons.”

Betty McMicken with a group of CSULB students
Betty McMicken (front) with a group of CSULB students at the L.A. Mission.

Four times a year, the L.A. Mission holds special events to bring in friends and neighbors, as well as feeding individuals at Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving. And over the summer, they host a back-to-school celebration.

“The streets are blocked off and we’ve had the opportunity to set up a Cal State Long Beach booth for two years now,” said McMicken. “Originally we were doing speech screenings of the clientele coming through and we would screen hundreds and were able to get services for many of them. We only do the screening officially once a year now, but we do have a balloon tent where we make character balloons. We give them to every child. There wasn’t a child who didn’t walk out with something special. These are children who are homeless, in need of service, children who live in the area and children who live under exceptionally difficult situations and they come to the mission for the holiday times.”

Michele Dong, another of McMicken’s students, praised the experience at the mission and her instructor as well.

“I loved working at the mission,” said Dong. “The people were real, their stories were gripping. Dr. Betty was wonderful to work for and with. Her rapport with the residents of the mission was amazing. She spent so much time troubleshooting for each individual client and she showed them she cared. She is knowledgeable about their disorders and difficulties, and she was able to allow her interns to learn from her example.”

As one can imagine, the unique experiences of working with individuals at the L.A. Mission has also found its way into the classroom.

“The interesting thing that happens is that I bring it into the classroom,” said McMicken of her work at the mission. “Every single one of my classes is taught now with examples of people I see at the mission. I’m working with the kinds of clients that I am teaching about and I’m working with them, in many cases, in an extraordinary situation. Many times I’m working with people who are still homeless and not in the mission.”

“I consider myself extremely fortunate and privileged to work with Dr. McMicken,” said Elle Kim, another of McMicken’s Communicative Disorders students. “She is an amazing woman who inspires me to learn as much as I can in order to help others and is a driving force of knowledge and fiercely accomplishes the goals she sets. At the same time, she is warm and has a sincere heart of compassion for those under her care. I learn so much more than things related to our profession as I work under her guidance. She is most definitely one who pioneers new ideas and new ways to impact people’s lives in their speech and communication.”

Kim, who was introduced to the L.A. Mission and the Anne Douglas Center last year, sees people’s lives being changed as they are ministered with love and the transforming power of God.

“The times I have volunteered at the mission, it’s been a blessing to serve and see their smiling faces and share their testimonies,” said Kim. “I am especially moved by what Anne Douglas has done in creating a center for women. She has taken the initiative to provide a safe place where women are restored their pride and dignity with grace and love.”

McMicken, who was retired after serving as the chair and full professor in the Communicative Disorders department at Cal State Los Angeles in the 1990s, was persuaded by CSULB department chair Carolyn Madding to get back in the game as an assistant professor at the university. By her own admittance, she had some reluctance in taking the position, but notes she became reinvigorated following her chance meeting and subsequent relationship with the Douglases.

McMicken, who brought Kirk Douglas to campus in October 2008 and again in April 2010 to speak in the Daniel Recital Hall, says this is by far the most rewarding time of her life.

“Although as a speech pathologist I volunteered one day a week for 22 years with the American Cancer Society in Orange County, I would never have imagined I’d be volunteering and setting up programs at the Anne Douglas Center and the L.A. Mission,” said McMicken. “This experience has given me a new sense of purpose and many blessings continue to fill my days. I can never say thank you enough to Kirk and Anne Douglas. I have never worked so hard in my life and I don’t intend on giving anything up.”