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Rhythm and healing: Latina therapist helps drum away the blues

[su_label type=”info”]COLUMN: COMMUNITY IN FOCUS [/su_label]

Celia Sampayo Perez, a harm reduction therapist from Venezuela, hosts a medicinal drumming circle every Wednesday at the Hospitality House in the Tenderloin. Photo Armando Valdez
Celia Sampayo Perez, a harm reduction therapist from Venezuela, hosts a medicinal drumming circle every Wednesday at the Hospitality House in the Tenderloin. Photo Armando Valdez
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Elizabeth Veras Holland

Inside a dimly lit room of the Hospitality House on Turk Street at Leavenworth in the Tenderloin, five of us sit in a circle as Celia Sampayo Perez lights a candle, before setting a smudge stick ablaze. It’s my first medicinal drumming circle, and I become immersed in the calming and earthy aroma of sage.

Colorful drums of various sizes lay in front of us amid the thick lingering smoke, and before we begin, we state the intentions for our drumming. The room is silent for a brief moment, and then Celia beats the first drum.

My hands follow her lead, and the sound of pounding drums quickly begins to take over the room. Clouding my mind is the heartbreak and grief that I’ve recently experienced in my personal life. But as my rhythm becomes more in sync with the others in the group, I feel a sudden burst of good energy. My heart starts pounding and the vibrations from the drums begin to pulse throughout my body. I close my eyes and lose myself.

“Drumming releases tension,” said Perez, a harm reduction therapist from Venezuela who facilitates this drumming group every week. “It is a way to express deep emotions and release them. That is why I love to do it. It helps me get in touch with my own emotions as well.”

Hospitality House received a grant from the city five years ago, which funded the purchase of 11 drums for Celia to start this group. She began drumming for her own spiritual healing, and her love for it lead her to do it with others.

Celia is the daughter of immigrant parents who survived Spanish civil war.

“I come from a working class family,” said Celia, who was born and raised in Venezuela.

She took an interest in art at a young age, and in 1983, she came to the United States  to study architecture. “I have always loved art and design. I wanted to design buildings that provided space for communities to gather: community gardens, classrooms, clinics.”

To earn extra income while studying, she began working for various residential treatment programs in San Francisco.

“I found that I also loved working hands-on in the community. I was juggling both for a while but I knew eventually one was going to have to give.”

It was an unexpected life-altering event that ended up making the decision for her.

“I experienced something in my life that caused me to rethink everything,” she said. “And I realized that I felt safer working hands-on in the social services field. I felt like I could be who I really am.”

Celia went from working on-call to taking on fulltime positions in residential treatment programs, SRO hotels and HIV clinics, but she found herself compelled to work specifically in the area of harm reduction therapy. Harm reduction therapy is a fairly new, alternative option to traditional substance abuse treatment.

“We can meet the clients where they are at,” she said. “We provide a non-judgmental space for them to be who they are and to create a treatment plan that is manageable and safe for them.”

I think of my own experience with harm reduction therapy and how much it has helped me in different areas of my life.

Celia provides drop-in harm reduction therapy at the Hospitality House’s Tenderloin Self-Help Center, as well as her ongoing medicinal drumming circle every Wednesday, which is open to the public. The services are free and confidential, and Celia is one of the few Spanish-speaking therapists working in the Tenderloin.

“Being Latina, I do have a hyper awareness of the issues that face minorities,” Celia said. “Latinos tend to respond better to the harm reduction approach considering the stigma that they face seeking any type of mental health/substance abuse treatment”.

Celia doesn’t just cater to the Spanish-speaking community.  She uses culture as a starting point with her clients, seeing that one’s relationship with culture can strengthen their identity.

As I type, my hands ache from the drumming, but my heart feels much lighter. I’m illuminated from being in Celia’s presence. She is a vibrant, passionate woman who is open and accepting. Talking to her makes me feel calmer and it’s clear to me that she is making a huge difference in this community.

Story by: Elizabeth Veras Holland