After nearly two decades at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, Sarah Bentley has left to pursue her passion for assisting families and their mental health.
Bentley, whose last day was Sept. 1, started at CHDS as a part-time operations coordinator in May 2004 with the Center in its fledgling days and rose to Assistant Associate Director of Education Programs.
She has already begun working at Montage Health’s Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health in Monterey, CA, as she finishes her Marriage and Family Therapist License, which requires 3,000 hours of experience within six years. Bentley said she is already halfway through those required hours and expects to be licensed in the next two years.
Bentley said the decision to leave CHDS “was difficult, but it was time for me to move forward and finish my Marriage and Family Therapist license.”
Bentley’s service to CHDS over the past two decades was lauded by a group of Center faculty and staff during a farewell ceremony on Aug. 28, which underscored the high regard in which she is held among her colleagues.
CHDS Executive Leaders Program Director Sara Kay said the informal ceremony was actually an “intervention” to dissuade Bentley from leaving, then went on to reminisce about first meeting her in 2006 when Kay was a Master’s Program participant and their collaboration since Kay started working at CHDS and ultimately took over the ELP.
“You’re just a wonderful person,” Kay told Bentley. “You’re wonderful to work with. I’m so thrilled you’re doing what you’re meant to do.”
Former ELP Director Ellen Gordon and Director of Programs Chris Bellavita, who both worked closely with Bentley for years, appeared remotely to praise her.
“We worked side by side for 17 years,” Gordon said. “You always pushed the envelope. This is a huge loss for CHDS and a great gain for the mental health world. There’s only one Sarah Bentley; I think the world of her and I know everyone feels the same. Never forget to ask, ‘So what?’.”
Bellavita noted how “amazing” it was to see how Bentley had “evolved” as a person while at CHDS. “You basically reinvented yourself over the last 19 years,” he said, lauding her for “what a good human being” she is.
Retiring CHDS Director Glen Woodbury said Bentley was upstaging his own retirement because of how essential she was to the institution. “You’re part of the body of CHDS,” Woodbury said. “My leaving is like CHDS getting a haircut; you’re leaving is like losing an arm.”
And, CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Issvoran, who hired Bentley so many years ago, called her the “best hire ever.”
In response, Bentley thanked everyone and said it was “really hard to leave,” adding that she “grew up” at CHDS after being hired out of college at 24.
She also noted that Bellavita and Gordon, who she dubbed her “work parents,” always encouraged her to pursue her goals, adding that Bellavita regularly asked her “what are you going to do when you grow up.”
Bentley was also presented with an honorary Ellen Gordon Award for her years of CHDS service at the ceremony, an award traditionally given to the ELP student who demonstrates the capacity “to seek knowledge beyond what is commonly known, to challenge the status quo.”
When she joined CHDS, Bentley had just completed her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and said she applied because she was “intrigued by CHDS’ mission to advance homeland security education and felt this was a way I could give back to my country after 9/11.”
Her first week at CHDS coincided with the graduation of the first Master’s cohort 0301, which is when she would first meet Woodbury and Gordon. She and fellow long-time CHDS staffer Mark Fish, who would eventually end up taking over as Operations Director, were hired part-time but soon were converted to full-time status as CHDS began growing.
Bentley described the early days at CHDS as a “creative mind’s playground” where staff “designed things as we went, and fine-tuned processes based on what was working and what wasn’t. I believe the freedom to share your ideas and open-mindedness of leadership such as Director Woodbury’s has played a role in the innovations and successes of CHDS.”
She said she began working with various Master’s cohorts, meeting Kay along the way, and then moved to the newly created ELP in 2006 and began working with Gordon and Bellavita.
In 2017, Bentley was promoted to Assistant Associate Director of Programs, splitting time supporting Bellavita’s Master’s Program and Gordon’s ELP, or as she said they joked, in “shared custody.”
Over the years, Bentley said she met numerous influential people from instructors to participants and often “sat in awe listening to first-hand accounts of terrorist attacks, war, natural disasters, and trauma.”
Bentley said she it was “unreal” meeting Dr. Philip Zimbardo while he was teaching a Master’s course at CHDS shortly after graduating from college with her degree in Psychology, noting that she had studied the Stanford Prison Experiment at length in college.
“Now,” she said, “Dr. Zimbardo was no longer confined to my textbooks, he was in the flesh. Getting the opportunity to support him and learn from him was an early highlight for me.”
She said meeting Secretary Leon Panetta at CHDS was “another highlight of my career.”
“As an Italian-American, watching Secretary Panetta rise from Congressman to Secretary of Defense was very inspiring to me,” Bentley said, adding that she had the honor of hearing him speak once more to an ELP class on her last day in the classroom. “If you’ve ever sat in on a lecture or talk from Panetta, you know his impact on an audience. His presence is captivating and you leave feeling empowered to make a difference in the world.”
But Bentley said Gordon, Bellavita and Kay were her most influential colleagues, calling Gordon a “mentor” and crediting both of them with pushing her to “reach my full potential” and seeing “something within me I had yet to realize. She said it was Gordon and Bellavita who helped prompt her to pursue her Master’s in Psychology. And she said it was Kay who helped her move through personal challenges and ultimately encouraged her to use her mental health background in the classroom, developing a lecture on coping with stress.
As for her pursuit of a career as a licensed therapist, Bentley said she was intrigued by mental health and how people process trauma and stress from an early age, noting her empathic ability to feel other people’s emotions and determination to help them feel better.
During her time as a military wife, Bentley said she realized the deficit in mental health services for National Guard families. She said her former husband was injured in Afghanistan and sent home where she had to care for him along with their two young children without mental health resources for herself. Determined to help others in her situation, she began researching Master’s programs in Psychology even as discussions about mental health kept coming up more often in CHDS classes, and this she said solidified her desire to become a therapist and help others.
Meanwhile, Bentley said she will always remember her time at CHDS fondly.
“The CHDS family has been so supportive and encouraging as I move forward with my career,” she said. “I’ve made several lifelong friendships and will forever be thankful for the growth and opportunity CHDS has given me.”