Perhaps one of the best ways to advance the counseling profession is by ensuring that leaders in Washington are up to date on pertinent issues affecting the field. Two weeks ago, 136 of the current and emerging leaders of the American Counseling Association’s branches, regions and divisions convened in Alexandria, Va., to do just that.

At the fourth annual ACA Institute for Leadership Training, which ran from July 25-28, ACA members from across the United States, including Puerto Rico, had the opportunity to connect and get to know each other, learn what it means to be a leader in a changing society and receive updates on the latest issues impacting the counseling profession.

But for many attendees, all of the networking, speeches and presentations culminated on Friday with a “Day on the Hill,” when attendees met with elected officials on Capitol Hill and lobbied for causes important to counselors.

Among the counselors headed to the Hill early Friday morning was 38-year-old Oscar Sida. The Las Vegas, Nev., resident is an adjunct counseling instructor at Nevada State College, a mental health therapist at the Problem Gambling Center and a mental health therapist Montevista Hospital, in addition to running his own private practice. Despite being so immersed in the counseling world, Sida was a first-timer at the Institute for Leadership Training.

Sida said he decided to attend the Institute this year when he realized there was no active branch of the American Counseling Association in Nevada.

He admitted he’s not someone who is naturally inclined to lead, “but somebody needed to step up,” he said. Meeting and talking with ACA members during the Institute, many of whom are from active branches and are implementing strategies to make their branches even stronger, has inspired him, Sida said.

“It’s all been really positive and exciting,” he said. “I want to do more now when I get back.”

On the bus ride into Washington Friday morning, while many of Sida’s fellow attendees read over their fact sheets and rehearsed what they were planning to say to their representatives once they made it to the Hill, Sida remained calm and collected.

“I figure I’m just a regular constituent,” he said, looking out the window as the bus sped along the 14th Street Bridge and into the heart of the city. “I’m just going to speak from what I actually know.”

What Sida knows firsthand is that based on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) current statutes, which do not recognize all types of licensed professional counselors, he was denied a position at a soon-to-be opened VA hospital in Las Vegas.

“I’m certified and experienced in PTSD and trauma counseling,” Sida said, “and I’ve applied to VA positions but been denied because I don’t fit these standards, because they’re geared toward social workers.”

Sida said he looks forward to discussing such an important, personal topic with people who can actually initiate change.

“A good buddy of mine was in the Marines — two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan,” he said. “This is a policy-level change … and what we want the VA to do is to make space for licensed professional counselors.”

During his Day on the Hill, Sida met with legislative aides, specialists and policy advisors for Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev). Though he was slightly nervous in the beginning, he finished strong and impassioned once he started speaking about issues he believed in.

Sida said he will look back on his Day on the Hill and his entire experience at the Institute for Leadership Training as something to learn from. “It was surreal,” he says. “I loved it.”

Along with speaking to elected officials about pressuring the VA to hire more counselors, attendees also asked their senators and representatives to support funding the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for Fiscal Year 2013 and asked senators to cosponsor legislation establishing coverage of counselors on Medicare (S. 604, the Seniors Mental Health Access Improvement Act). Attendees also asked their representatives to consider sponsoring a House counterpart measure.  For more information on current issues, visit ACA’s public policy page.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at