'The invisible area of the population' stresses Astoria-based counseling centerAt the Hope House there are pillows for punching, crayons for creating and sand for soothing, but few poor families can access these counseling tools.

The counseling center has been turning people away - 10 families in just the last two weeks.

"Eighty percent of people calling for counseling can't afford anything," said licensed therapist Candy Sollars, 56, who took over as director in July.

Which is why Sollars and Hope House supporters are raising funds to underwrite counseling services for needy individuals and families.

"This is the invisible area of the population," said Susan King, Hope House advisory board chairwoman. "You aren't aware of the extensive need that's there. It's hard to see and hard to identify. It's the same thing with hunger. We know it's there but we can ignore it."

The holidays are often the most difficult time for struggling families, Sollars said. Seasonal jobs have ended and money is tight, but they need to buy Christmas gifts. They're put in contact with other families, which is stressful if those families are dysfunctional. And around the holidays, grief for loved ones who have died can be especially acute. If the person who died was the only breadwinner, the family is without an income.

When a family can't afford an insurance deductible, or the $50 to $90 sliding scale fee, the problem doesn't go away. They just go without the children's bereavement counseling or divorce counseling or behavioral counseling.

"It's really hard for the indigent and working poor to find any kind of help," King said.

Sollars said children have told her stories that just tear at her heart.

When she asks them, for example, to draw a picture of what life was like with mom, she'll get pictures of a mom with her boyfriend, drugs and alcohol. Kids will choose action figures with guns to represent their fathers.

"The kids are pretty truthful," she said.

The Hope House is an office of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a nonprofit human-services agency. Individuals and families need not be religious to obtain services, and the Hope House offers both secular and faith-based counseling.

The Hope House can meet a variety of counseling needs for children and adults. "We see kids who have witnessed domestic violence, kids out of control behaviorally, kids and adults with depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, some kids with Tourette's," said Sollars, naming a few examples. Hope House staff believe they are the only ones in the community to offer court-mandated divorce counseling and group bereavement counseling for children.

Sollars would like to start two sexual-abuse groups, a parenting group for children with challenging behaviors and an anger-management group for women. Her goal is to be able to provide these groups at minimal charge.

The Hope House is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and is closed Friday. To donate or find out about counseling services, call 325-6754. Donated funds will only be used to expand access to counseling services.