The counselor uses one’s own life experience to help others

Emily Benjamin is a veteran counselor at the St. Joseph of Center County. Benjamin was named the nations top Addiction Therapist in 2022 by Trac9 Informatics and is seeking licensure with the Pennsylvania Department of Social Workers. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

PORT MATILDA: Liar, thief, master manipulator and convicted felon described Emily Benjamin 13 years ago. Today, she is an award-winning counselor, well-respected by her peers, and a beacon of hope for those struggling with substance use disorders.

Benjamin, 37, recently achieved a much-desired career milestone: becoming an advanced alcohol and drug counselor certified by the Pennsylvania Board of Certification.

Never content to rest, she is now seeking licensure with the Pennsylvania Department of Social Workers. In 2022, she was named the nation’s top addiction therapist by Trac9 Informatics and last year received the Top Gun Excellence Award from Summit Behavioral Health, her employer. Summit Behavioral Health provides evidence-based behavioral health and addiction treatment services at 33 facilities in 19 states and has received national recognition for its tactical military care recovery program.

The Altoona resident works as a clinical supervisor and lead counselor helping military veterans and others with substance use disorders at the St. Joseph, a residential addiction treatment center in Center County. Benjamin received treatment at St. Joseph, then under different ownership, in 2011.

“I think she’s a beacon of hope and a winner for people,” said Dr. Antoinette (Petrazzi) Woods, a Mount Aloysius teacher and licensed professional counselor. “If sharing their story touches one person, it’s worth it. We need inspiration.”

Cindi Coffman, CEO of St. Joseph, described Benjamin as “very passionate. She knows where people are coming from and is very caring. She understands where boundaries are needed in the recovery process. She develops a treatment plan for a client that is tailored, it supports them and pushes them forward.”

“In my experience, drug and alcohol counselors who are in recovery and are deeply committed to a life of sobriety are some of the best counselors,” Woods said. “Academic literature indicates that 37 to 57 percent of the substance abuse treatment workforce is in recovery.”

‘People like it’

Benjamin’s descent into the chaotic spiral of substance use disorder began as an 18-year-old college freshman who experimented with cocaine.

“I did it because I was hanging out with friends who did it; not so much peer pressure, but nice people,” she said. “I’ve always been insecure about myself and wanted to fit in.”

Benjamin’s use progressed from cocaine to opiates to heroin over the course of three years, resulting in multiple arrests, an eventual dismissal from college, and many ruined relationships.

A pivotal phone call from her father, Harry Benjamin, came as she was about to inject heroin in the bathroom stall of a convenience store.

“I broke down. I said I was arrested and I was going to jail,” Benjamin recalled. His father, who had been visiting relatives in Florida, returned home immediately and gathered his family and best friend for an intervention that led to his admission to the St. Joseph for 30 days of hospitalization.

The first few days brought withdrawal and being “an angry resident,” he said. “After two weeks of the program, something happened. I started to enjoy it and like how it made me feel. I would go to bed clean and wake up clean. I liked that when I woke up, I didn’t have to think about which drug dealer to call and how to get money and how to get drugs. I liked the person I was becoming.”

After completing the program, he returned home to live with his mother, Patty Benjamin.

“I went to a 12-step meeting (Narcotics Anonymous) every day for the first 90 days of my recovery. It’s an anonymous program, so I can’t really talk about it, but I found a home with people who were like me and it was mutual support,” Benjamin said. “I’ve worked the 12 steps and I’m still working the 12 steps today. I haven’t touched any drugs or any substances next month.”

She completed intense probation (weekly in-person reviews and drug screening), made restitution and worked to make amends to those she hurt, and was rejected. She is grateful for her latest arrest and the phone call from her father that she says saved her life. When the tears flow, he claims them as another indicator of his recovery, because he is feeling his feelings and no longer numbs them with substances.

“From Nightmare to Joy”

“My guilt today is a gift to my recovery,” he said. They didn’t want to meet with me and that’s okay because I did my part,” explained Benjamin.

She is grateful to the educators who gave her the opportunity to complete her education despite her felony convictions.

She returned to college and completed a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Penn State in 2014. She then applied and was accepted into Mount Aloysius College’s graduate program to pursue a Master’s in Community Counseling.

There, he met Woods, whom Benjamin calls his mentor.

“The quality that contributes to her success in the first place was her intrinsic motivation to a vocational calling greater than herself. Emily knows the cost and consequences of addiction and is passionate about pursuing wellness and sobriety. I find her to be intelligent, inquisitive, assertive, respectful, dedicated to professional advice, authentic and insightful about herself and others,” Woods said. “Also, she is personable, engaging and effective when building rapport and accepting constructive criticism.”

Her mother, Patty, said life as a family “went from a nightmare to a joy. I’m so proud of her and she inspires me. It’s a hard job (counseling others). Her gift it’s how much she cares. Her own story helps people. She’s very honest about her story and it’s her calling, but she’s very humble about it.”

Woods, his colleagues from St. Joseph’s and his family agree that Benjamin “goes the extra mile.”

“I appreciate his determination, resilience, bravery and sense of humor,” Woods said, adding that Benjamin has mastered the “art of counseling,” a skill he can’t teach but lies within . “I knew Emily had the qualities to effectively interact with the science and art of counseling to benefit others.”

Colleague Lauren Pritchard said Benjamin is “passionate and dedicated to helping others”.

Jennifer Mallery has been a counselor at St. Joseph’s for two years and said Benjamin has taught her the importance of spending time with clients, as well as taking notes and documentation that goes with it, and serving as a role model for others.

“She’s a great leader. She’s open, honest, supportive and encouraging. She talks to you as an equal and in a way that motivates you to do better,” Mallery said.

“Their interactions with the vets are amazing to me. The things they’ve been through, they tend to be very closed off and don’t say much,” Mallery said. “But Emily has a way that when they leave here, they’re totally different. They’re very open and talk about their experiences. They have hope in their eyes again. It’s a transformation.”

And, for Benjamin, this is not only what motivates her professionally, but also in her personal journey.

“My goal is to show people that there is hope and that recovery is possible,” Benjamin said, “And it’s not just about living, it’s about thriving.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith can be reached at 814-949-7030.

The Benjamin File

First name: Emily Catherine Benjamin

Age: 37

Residence: Altoona

Family: Harry Benjamin and Patty Benjamin; siblings: Liz Benjamin, twins Nick and Jenn of Altoona; five nieces and two nephews

Education: Altoona Area High School, 2005; Pennsylvania State University, Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, 2014; Mount Aloysius College – Master of Science in Community Counseling with Honours, 2017

Occupation: St. Joseph Institute since 2017, where she is a team leader and veteran advisor

Awards and Honors: 2022, named best addiction therapist in the nation by Trac9 Informatics; 2023 Summit Behavioral Health Top Gun Excellence Award

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