Staff Spotlight: GPS Program Director and Director of GPS en Español Nelly Willis

Nallely (Nelly) Willis walked into her first GPS Group Peer Support (GPS) group seven years ago and took a seat by the door. She didn’t plan on staying. As the leader of a nonprofit providing perinatal support to low-income parents, Willis routinely led support groups. In fact, she was running about 10 groups a week.

“I thought, ‘I don’t need this. I already know how to run groups,’” Willis recalled.

But the founder of the nonprofit that Willis led urged her to take GPS’s facilitator training which provides professionals and people with lived experience and the tools necessary to run trauma-informed support groups where healing can—and often does, as Willis soon discovered—take place.

The facilitator training requires that trainers attend a GPS support group together to gain firsthand experience with the model. So Willis showed up. But she expected to leave shortly after the group started.

To her surprise, however, she felt compelled to stay. To her even greater surprise, she was deeply moved by the experience.

“I felt a validation. It was a validation that I didn’t even know I needed. I felt seen,” she said.

The reality for Willis at that time was that although she was excelling professionally, she was struggling in her personal life. Her two-month-old son had been hospitalized multiple times and undergone numerous surgeries to treat complications from a congenital chronic illness. Willis felt overwhelmed with guilt for having passed it on to him. She was also experiencing post-partum depression, suicidal thoughts, and symptoms of Post-partum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When she showed up for the GPS group, she had come straight from the hospital where she had been told by her son’s caregivers that he wasn’t expected to survive. As she watched her fellow trainees socialize with one another before the meeting, she couldn’t imagine engaging in conversation with any of them. They all looked “normal” to her while she felt “like a monster” who was responsible for her son’s pain.

As the group got underway, though, Willis noticed that it was run differently from other support groups. People didn’t interrupt each other. They listened. When someone cried, no one jumped up with a tissue box to get them to stop.

Willis found herself opening up and sharing information she hadn’t shared with anyone else. Such as her belief that her son’s caregivers were scrutinizing her parenting skills and judging them to be inadequate.

“But in that moment, in that group, I felt like my true self. I spoke and nobody interrupted me. I cried, and nobody ran with the tissue box to stop my suffering,” she said. “People just witnessed and watched. I think that’s exactly what I needed.”

Today, Willis serves as GPS’s Program Director and Director of GPS en Español. She develops and directs all GPS programs, including trainings and webinars, and translates and adapts materials for GPS en Español. She also hires, trains, and supervises more than 50 GPS facilitators and coaches. Willis has also led GPS Postpartum Mothers groups in Spanish for years, serving primarily immigrant, refugee, and undocumented women living precariously on the border between Arizona, where she lives, and Mexico.

The experience of telling her story uninterrupted was the most impactful and healing part of the group for Willis.

“People just listened. They didn’t try to fix me,” she said. “Every time you tell your story, and someone listens without interrupting you, your defenses start to drop, your body’s stress response calms down, and you can genuinely start to heal. That’s what happened to me. I started healing in my very first GPS support group.”

Willis subsequently sought treatment through therapy, medication and other sources. However her transformational experience with GPS inspired her to bring GPS to the Latino community in Arizona and beyond. She began by adapting GPS materials culturally and linguistically for Latino audiences. She also created Spanish-language groups and facilitator trainings, and developed strategies to build relationships in the Latino community so that people would be receptive to GPS programming.

“GPS is a bridge that’s filling gaps in the healthcare system,” she said. “When I found GPS, I didn’t really know that I needed support. But even if I had, I would not have gone to a clinic for help. I was afraid. Even though I’m a U.S. citizen, I get asked for my passport all the time. I was afraid that if I told people I was having Intrusive thoughts, suicidal thoughts, and that I had Postpartum OCD, they might try to take my son away from me.”

The community-based GPS model of care provides an easy point of entry into care, Willis said.

“GPS isn’t a replacement for intensive therapy or medication, but GPS is therapeutic. It can be that door to other resources,” Willis said. “It’s not magic, but it can empower and transform people in many ways. That’s what it did for me and I’m so grateful to be able to bring it now to my community. There is so much need out there and with our group model, we can reach a lot of people.”