Anne Bruno LaRussa has worked for years to bring affordable mental health services to women and children in Birmingham. And she’s not done yet.

Birmingham native Anne Bruno LaRussa’s journey to becoming a mental health counselor started in the 1980s when she worked at a local community college advising older women who had returned to school to earn their degrees.

“I realized that some of the women had mental health issues,” she says. “Some of it was due to divorce or grief. That’s when I realized there was a lot that could be done for them.”

Cover Art from Anne Bruno LaRussa's Family Memoir

LaRussa eventually enrolled in the UAB School of Education to earn a master's degree in counselor education and later an education specialist degree.

Today, she is the founder and former executive director of Oasis Counseling for Women and Children, a nonprofit that provides mental health counseling services for low-income women and children. She also has launched the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope, which will promote efforts to make mental health wellness accessible to more Alabamians.

Preparing for the Vision

LaRussa says the counselor education classes at UAB gave her the knowledge she needed to become an effective counselor.

“I learned so much,” she says. “I spent a lot of hours studying in the library, and my professors were always so helpful and encouraging.”

She graduated from UAB in 1993 and enrolled in the education specialist program in counseling that the school offered. While taking classes at night, she worked at the Cheaha Mental Health Center in Talladega during the day.

“Somehow I got most of the older women clients,” says LaRussa, “and a lot of them requested me. I realized that they needed more than they were getting there. I would go in in the mornings and the waiting room would be full of people.”

LaRussa says she began dreaming of opening her own counseling center to help women who otherwise could not afford to pay for mental health services.

“I had the assurance that I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “I had a goal, and I just went after that goal. The most difficult part was getting it open.”

She wanted her center to be in a home-like setting instead of a traditional, clinical environment, she says. So she found a Victorian home on Birmingham’s Southside and opened Oasis Counseling for Women and Children in 1995. As the nonprofit’s clientele increased, Oasis expanded its operations to two more Victorian homes next door.

Serving the Underserved

Today Oasis has a staff of 10 professional counselors. It offers services on a sliding fee scale and accepts Medicaid for children. In fact, much of the center’s revenue comes from foundation grants, contributions and an endowment, according to its 2015 annual report.

In 2016, Oasis provided 6,732 counseling sessions, 74 percent of which were clients with annual household incomes of $25,000 or less, she says.

LaRussa worked as the executive director of Oasis for five years before she retired and joined its board of directors.

Currently, she is an ex-officio board member and has turned her attention to writing.

She recently debuted a family memoir called “The Knitter” that begins with her maternal and paternal grandparents and reflects on her Sicilian roots, her own reflections on family life and her personal commitment to mental health awareness.

The book even recounts the time she battled post-partum depression following the birth of her sixth child.

“It’s a life story, and life includes all of those things,” she says. “I’m hoping that people will read it and not be afraid to seek help because you don’t want to lose all of the good things that life has to offer.”

LaRussa says proceeds from the book will support the foundation, which has been in existence since May 2016. To purchase the book, or to learn more about the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope, visit the website at anneblarussafoundationofhope.org.