Sarah Timmer, M.A, LPC, LMFT, NCC, BC-TMH, always knew she would pursue a career in the helping professions. For many years, her studies were focused on a career in healthcare, but after her own experience in marriage counseling, Timmer—Founder of Counseling Center of West Michigan—felt a deep calling to the counseling field, specifically work as a couple's counselor.
"It's deeply impactful, meaningful work that I am honored to be able to do," said Timmer, whose credentials are as vast as her passion for helping others. Her earlier life experiences have greatly shaped who she is and her drive to succeed.
Years ago, Timmer was a teen mom who dropped out of school in ninth grade and was working at 15 to support her daughter and herself, and never returned to high school.
"Even at 15, flipping pizzas and going home to a newborn while other kids my age were having fun, I knew that I would do something big with my life," she said. "I never let go of that drive, no matter what life threw my way or what others said about me. I remember when I was 16, I came across a statistic in a magazine about how less than 2% of teen moms would go on to graduate from college. I used that as fuel for years."
As soon as Timmer was accepted to graduate school, she started thinking about where she'd would work upon graduation and completion of her internship. She felt dismayed at her options—agency work or private practice.
"Neither of those options appealed to me, so I decided that once I was finished with my education and training, I would open a practice of my own," said Timmer, who along with her husband, have been entrepreneurs most of their lives. Though they were no strangers to running a business, Timmer admittedly knew next to nothing about the field. "For two of my three years in graduate school, I surveyed therapists from all around the area and throughout the state."
She spoke to hundreds of therapists over that course of time, asking them dozens of questions about their experiences working as therapists and inquired about what they believed was missing in their field. Timmer used all of that information to create Counseling Center of West Michigan and refers to their model as "perfecting private practice."
Her initial plan was to open one good sized location where Timmer and 15-20 other therapists would practice.
"I remember signing our first lease at 360 East Beltline in February of 2019 and thinking to myself, 'Sarah, what are you doing? You are never going to be able to find 20 therapists to work here!'" she recalled. "I never told anyone I was feeling that way and just kept pushing ahead with my fingers crossed that this business model that I so believed in would actually play out the way I imagined it would."
To Timmer's surprise, she'd received over 125 resumes within 72 hours after posting her first employment ad. Within days, her first location was filled, but there were still so many therapists Timmer wanted to work with.
"I looked at my husband and said, 'These therapists need a home and I am going to create one for them—I'm opening two more locations.' Thankfully, he knows me well enough to know the only real response was 'OK.'"
However, Timmer still didn't know if she would have the number of clients needed. She'd soon find her answer.
"We were quite immediately inundated with new clients and it was then that I realized the great need in our community for mental health services," she said, stressing how important it is for people to know there's no shame in seeking counseling services. "Everything moved very quickly and at times was overwhelming, but I knew that therapists needed a workplace where they were respected, supported and well paid, and that clients needed easy access to qualified therapists. I kept my focus on those two things and knew the details would work themselves out."
They did, in a big way. Two years later, CCWM has 14 locations and is set to open four more before the end of 2021. Almost 200 therapists now call CCWM home and Timmer is proud to have exceptionally low turnover.
"Our therapists love working with us and for that I am exceedingly grateful," she said. "The work they do is invaluable in our community and it is nothing short of incredible to me that I have been able to provide a place for them to not only do that work, but do it in a way that honors them. The most incredible part is that our clinical staff has grown almost entirely by word of mouth."
When it comes to challenges, Timmer feels fortunate they've not run into too many yet—outside of pivoting because of COVID-19, of course.
"We've made accommodations and adjustments as needed, but our staff, therapists, executive team and clients have all been amazing," Timmer said, who knows that as a leader, she sets the tone in the workplace. "I tell our staff daily: 'Everything is figure-out-able,' and it is! I view each twist and turn with my business as an adventure and an opportunity to learn and grow."
Shortly before the pandemic hit, Timmer was already exploring options for growing her services by offering expanded telehealth therapy, recognizing the need was there for folks living in rural areas who may not have even known telehealth was an option for them.
"We created a plan to market virtual therapy in 2020 and several weeks later, COVID made telehealth therapy a well-known option to all," Timmer said. "From my perspective, that was one of the positive things that came from such a difficult time."
It was very important to Timmer that she allow her therapists have total control over the way they practice as everyone was navigating the "new COVID normal."
"I honored each of their wishes in how they would continue to practice," she said, noting for some that meant 100% virtual or 100% in person, while for others it was a mix of the two. "Even at the height of COVID lockdowns, we remained open and served thousands of clients per week. I'm a strong believer that everyone can benefit from counseling and that mental health care is an absolute essential service. During COVID, many in our community needed us more than ever and I am proud to say that we were there."
When it comes to advice for other women looking to follow a similar career path, Timmer says it's vital to be bold, brave and big.
"Even in 2021, many people will try to keep women in a box," she said. "I've experienced that several times these past years myself—don't allow it. Every time someone questioned my dreams and plans, I told myself, 'That's about them, not me.' What I did was risky. I often tell people I had no way of knowing if my plans would succeed. It could have been a total flop and I put a lot on the line. I’ll tell you though, I would still have rather tried and failed than to have never stuck my neck out there. Believe in yourself and ‘do it afraid!’"
Timmer's goals for the future are ambitious, and she hopes her story can inspire other young girls.
"Your circumstances don't define you unless you let them," she said. "My goal is to continue to grow CCWM both in our physical campuses and our telehealth platform until every therapist in Michigan has a job they love and every client in Michigan has access to exceptional mental health care."
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.