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Many married couples dream of traveling the world together, but perhaps few have left as much of an impact in their world travels as George Mason University’s Rita Chi-Ying Chung and Fred Bemak.

In their 17 years of marriage, the pair has traveled together and separately on counseling missions to more than 50 countries, aiding those suffering from tragedies like the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the Gulf Coast in 2005, 2004’s Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on Thailand, and the 2007 San Diego wildfires, which burned an estimated 1,500 homes in Southern California.

“In our field [of counseling] there is probably only a small percentage of professors who are this hands on,” said Chung, who, like her husband, teaches counseling and development in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “I don’t want to teach the next generation of counselors to be sitting around in an office; it needs to be hands on.”

Bemak said, “We’ve worked far beyond refugees in our worldwide work. We worked with children who have been trafficked. I’ve worked with child soldiers.”

Chung explains that the couple’s work is not about clean-up or temporary assistance with aid relief in the wake of wars or natural disaster. Instead, the couple focuses on providing psychological stability and support for those facing devastation or victims of long-term abuse.

Some of the places the couple has visited are remote and have not seen westerners or whites before. For example, the professors worked in Burma in 2007 and 2008.

“We go out to these villages where they have never seen someone who is not Asian,” Chung said. “And they’ll look at Fred and get really concerned and a child will come up [to him] and say, ‘Are you OK? Are you sick or something [because of his pallor].”

While that interaction was comical, most the couple experience are not.

“[In Burma], a mother came running up to me and said, ‘I no longer beat my kids five times a day. I only beat them two times a day… It’s progress,” Chung said. “I would talk to the child about being beaten and he wouldn’t just talk about the physical hurt but the hurt in his heart… It’s just important to instill hope in people.”

In recognition for their lifetime of service, the American Counseling Association, a national not-for-profit professional and education organization with more than 50,000 members, will award Bemak and Chung the association’s highest honors. In March, Chung will receive the Gilbert and Kathleen Wrenn Humanitarian and Caring Person Award, which was awarded to Bemak in 2011. In his turn, Bemak will receive the Kitty Cole Human Rights Award, previously bestowed on Chung in 2012.

“The awards are kind of a surprise to us because our work isn’t about the rewards,” Bemak said. “We’ve been doing this work to do the work and give back.”

Chung said, “My colleagues in the field have really looked at my work and our work… I’m totally speechless.”

With more accolades soon to be in hand, Chung and Bemak have no plans of halting their efforts. This July, the pair plans to visit South Dakota’s Lakota American Indian tribe on the Pine Ridge or Oglala Indian Reservation.

The couple received permission from the leadership of the reservation to visit for a few weeks. The purpose of the trip will be to provide counseling support for the American Indian community, which has been plagued with poverty, substance abuse and high suicide rates.

“We’re at the point in our careers where we have a lot of skills and experience and we want to give back,” Bemak said.

Students studying under Bemak and Chung say they are in awe of the work the couple has done in the field.

“Dr. Chung and Dr. Bemak’s accomplishments are beyond anything that could be written on paper,” said Casey Quigley, who graduated from Mason with a Master’s in Counseling and Development in a Community Agency in May. She currently works with mentally ill adults in Arlington County. “They have travelled all over the world to the poorest of countries and they have provided mental health services that would not have been provided otherwise. They are fearless.”

Current student Tiffany J. Jones, who graduates in May with her Masters of Education in Counseling Community Agency said, “Doctors Chung and Bemak are THE professors of the counseling program. They are the radical professors who do things their way … They are the professors who don’t just assign you book work, but encourage you to engage in experiential learning activities…They are the backbone of Mason’s counseling program. Without them the program would be average.”

Path to helping others

Chung grew up in a household where immigrants flowed in and out like guests in a hotel.

“Both of my parents were refugees in World War II who immigrated [to New Zealand],” she said. “Our home was sort of a hotel for refugees.”

Chung’s parents fled China after the Japanese bombed China’s southern province. Chung, who grew up in Wellington, said fellow Chinese immigrants would stay with her family in Wellington.

“My interest was in immigrants and refugees,” said Chung, who has followed her childhood experiences with a career in aiding those displaced by natural disasters and conflicts. “In some ways, it was sort of ingrained in me as a child.”

Bemak had a very different childhood, but also filled with experiences that would shape his interest in helping others.

“I grew up in a household that cared about civil rights,” said Bemak, who spent his childhood in New York state and Massachusetts. As a psychology major in graduate school, Bemak worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, a college-prep support program for high school students from low-income families or those who would be the first in their family to attend college.

“I was a summer counselor and we were bringing in African Americans, Latinos and poor white students,” Bemak said, “We were trying to help low-income at-risk youth become college bound.”

The professors met during a conference held at Harvard University on global issues like working with refugees and mental health. Despite the small, invite-only crowd of about 40 professionals, Chung said, “I didn’t meet Fred until the last day, coming down the elevator.”

At another convention, Bemak would be inspired to create Counselors Without Borders, a nonprofit organization committed to providing humanitarian counseling in post-disaster emergency situations.

“We were sitting in the audience and someone asked, ‘How many of you have been to New Orleans [post Katrina]?’” Bemak said. “Only a few hands were up… and people were telling about their work helping with the clean up. I was thinking, we have all these skills...”

In the aftermath of Katrina, Bemak and Chung took a team of 16 people to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to counsel Katrina survivors.

“We’re training people and building capacity so other people can do counseling that heals people,” Bemak said, adding that his group counseled about 1,100 clients after Katrina. “After they’ve got some ground under their feet they need someone to talk to about healing.”

Students have come with Bemak and Chung on Counselors Without Borders missions.

“One hundred percent of our students have said those trips have been life transforming,” Bemak said.

Chung said that while she’s been aiding others through counseling for many years, one thing still surprises her.

“One of the things that I’m always amazed in is the level of resiliency of these refugees,” she said. Women who have been trafficked for sex, she said, have demonstrated the ability to forgive their trespassers. “I’ve learned about the capacity for forgiveness.”

Learn more about Counselors Without Borders at www.counselorswithoutborders.org.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com