We are excited to welcome Nicole LeBlanc as the new Program Director of My Refuge House, Philippines. Crystal Sprague has been promoted to Executive Director of My Refuge House and been relocated to the U.S. Nicole has taken on the incredible responsibility of directing our counseling, prevention and residential programs in Cebu, Philippines. We asked Nicole to share with you about her first few months as the newcomer to our house, her amazing journey from Canada to Columbia to Kenya and now the Philippines—and the work God has done in her life every step of the way.
Q&A with Nicole:
How have your first few months in the Philippines gone so far?
It has been very exciting and a steep learning curve so far! I love the place and the people, and I’ve been really impressed by what has been accomplished at MRH. The staff here are excellent and I am really optimistic about the years ahead. Unfortunately, I was out of commission for a few weeks with Dengue [Fever], but the community here and back in North America were extremely supportive, so I’m glad to be back on my feet and at work.
How have the girls at My Refuge House taken to you?
The girls are very sweet and loveable and they are always smiling, which brightens my day. Unfortunately, our ability to communicate is a bit limited because of the language barrier, but I hope in the coming months to improve on my Cebuano while they improve on their English!
Let’s go back some years. Looking over your life, when was it that you knew you wanted to work with survivors of trauma?
It was in my teen years that I first really knew I wanted to help people who were hurting. I grew up in a Catholic home in Toronto, but it wasn’t until my early teens that I really made my faith my own. I often had feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. It was a painful time. I experienced a major turning point after hearing a priest preach and share his own conversion experience. He spoke about the parables of the lost son [Prodigal Son] and the lost sheep. I remember being so struck with the realization that God would want me and love me. Soon after that, I developed the strong desire to help others also come to know that they are wanted and loved, and not alone.
That strong feeling of wanting to help others make sense of their suffering stayed with me. That’s why in college I decided to pursue a degree in psychology. But I didn’t know at that time in exactly what way God would want me to help others. It was definitely a process of figuring out where I was supposed to be.
What was that process like?
Very gradual and unpredictable! After college I spent six months doing volunteer work in Columbia with street girls. That really got me thinking about the social factors that contribute to the suffering and trauma that young children experience.
When I got back to Canada I pursued a Master’s degree in social work with a focus in counseling. I wanted a social work degree because of its focus on social and environmental factors, like poverty, inequality and conflict, that contribute to people needing healing. My vision at that time—and still today—is to be a Christian counselor; that is, to integrate faith with the counseling practice.
After grad school I moved to Houston, Texas to work with pregnant young women, counseling them through the decision to place or parent their babies, and then assist some of them through the adoption and grief process. Later on, I became a fellow [intern] with International Justice Mission [IJM]. At that time IJM had two locations that they could’ve placed me in: one in Cebu, Philippines and the other in Kenya. But they said they already had someone working in Cebu (who I found out later was Crystal Sprague). So they sent me to Kenya. I was in Kenya about a year with IJM counseling rape survivors and training mental health professionals on a trauma-focused counseling model. After that, I stayed in Kenya for six more months to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service at a refugee camp. I trained leaders at the camp in basic counseling skills. It was after those experiences that I felt very strongly that I belonged in missions work.
It wasn’t long after Kenya that you came to MRH. How did that come about?
When I returned to Canada I got a counseling job that I loved, but I felt like I didn’t belong there. It was difficult reintegrating, and I felt like I should be overseas. I didn’t know where, but the Philippines had always been in the back of my mind. Then IJM sent me an email saying that one of their partner organizations, My Refuge House, was looking for a program director in Cebu. When I read the job posting, I was so excited because it was basically my dream job! The position focused on clinical work, counseling survivors of trauma, and developing the staff to care for young women. Exactly what I wanted to be doing!
After going through the application process everything seemed like it would be a great fit. I was so amazed and felt so blessed when I got the news that MRH had chosen me! I was ready to scoop up the opportunity right away, but a couple of spiritual mentors counseled me to first wait and listen to the voice of God before making such a big decision. I was already scheduled for an eight-day silent retreat, so before I said yes to MRH, I took that retreat and asked God to clarify his will for me. By the end of the retreat I felt the answer was clear: that I was being sent to the Philippines with MRH.
Working with trauma survivors can be exhausting for anyone. How do you keep your grounding and not burn out?
I think it is out of necessity that I developed some boundaries and learned how to take care of myself so that I can continue doing social work. Leaning on God is a big part of that. One scripture that really speaks to me is from Paul, when he writes that [God’s] “power is made perfect in weakness” [2 Cor. 12:9]. I know I have skills and experience and education, but I also have plenty of weaknesses. I try to remember that God can be glorified in any one of us as long as we’re open and a willing instrument of his.
Another passage in Jeremiah comes to mind and really stuck with me on my silent retreat [Jer. 1:4–10]. Jeremiah says that he’s too young and inexperienced to be called by God. In some ways I see myself like that as I face my role here at MRH. But God still wanted Jeremiah and empowered him. It’s a reminder to me to be on my knees in prayer, to rely on God and his power whenever I feel weak.
Just for fun, tell us some things about you that we might not have guessed?
I’m bilingual, Spanish and English. My parents live in Toronto and I have an older brother in Vancouver [British Columbia]. My favorite books are classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables and Anna Karenina, but I also enjoy contemporary books like The Kite Runner. And I’m a foodie… Love food!
What would you like us to pray for you about?
Pray for the girls. Pray that they transition well to me and my role in the house. And pray that I will trust God through the transition myself. Pray that I always remember to see the positives with the girls, because growth is a process and healing comes slowly. I want to help the girls see that they are called to something great. They have come through trauma and pain, but they are called to something wonderful.
Edited by: Jessica Curiel