Published April 19, 2011
Volume 19, Number 4

Dr. Susan DuPree, Humanitarian by Profession and Avocation  

Susan DuPree, Ph.D., right, traveled to Afghanistan last month
on a joint Rotary/ASSIST international mission. (Photo courtesy
of Dr. Susan DuPree.)

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

When clinical psychologist Susan DuPree, Ph.D., launched her practice in Pleasanton 20 years ago, it was the start of another career in the helping professions.

DuPree had previously spent two decades as a special educator for the blind and visually impaired, working her way up from a classroom teacher at the California School for the Blind to a program initiator for the Fremont Unified School System. The next step up the ladder, university teaching, was a prospect that did not appeal to her.

A chance meeting in Berkeley with the late Edith Schultz, a Harvard-trained educational psychologist pointed her in a new direction. “Edy and I hit it off as friends, and she also became my mentor,” DuPree comments. “She convinced me to go beyond my first masters in education and do a masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology.”

This new avenue felt like a really good fit, and DuPree put her studies on a fast track. Writing her dissertation on an analysis of school-based psychotherapy programs for children of divorced and separated parents, she was able to finish her doctorate in three years. She then went to work with the California state evaluator of mental health programs as an assistant in his office in Pinole.

She opened her clinical psychology office in Pleasanton in 1990. Initially she focused on children, eventually expanding the age range to include adolescents and adults. “I've seen kids as young as three all the way up to adults in their seventies,” she notes. Her practice as a generalist has allowed her to be selective about her patient base. “I do not treat serious mental illness like schizophrenia, or alcohol or drug problems. There are many other good people specializing in those areas of expertise.”

Still, she sees people from all walks of life, with all kinds of issues--mood disorders, depression, panic, anxiety. Many need help adjusting to life events, current or past, such as the diagnosis or remission of a serious disease or divorce and custody battles. She also assists people with transitions--“changes that happen when men and women reach a certain age and want to move on but don’t know how.”

Over the years she has frequently encountered a recurring myth about her profession. “The public thinks that the job of psychologists and counselors is to fix them, or give them a pill,” she observes. “We are not here to fix patients but to guide them, using a combination of emotional maturity, compassion, experience, and training.”

Compassion, especially for those outside the mainstream, has been an integral part of DuPree’s life ever since she can remember. Three experiences in particular stirred her sense of altruism and left their imprint.  

“When I was a very small child growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, there was a young blind girl in our neighborhood who had no friends,” she recalls. “I felt very sad for her and empathized with her isolation. I wanted to befriend her before she went off to the state school. I wasn’t afraid of her blindness the way others were.”

A young polio victim in an iron lung struck the same chord. “I remember feeling deep helplessness,” she reveals. “I didn’t understand what an iron lung was. From that experience I learned that kids have differences. I appreciated and wanted to help them. My character was emerging.”

Inspiration number three was a babysitter’s hydrocephalic daughter. DuPree soon learned that the girl was “like everyone else,” even though her disfiguration was obvious. The injustice of the child’s inappropriate exclusion “really got to me,” she says.

Her family background supported her budding sense of fair play and nurtured a curiosity in the world beyond her own backyard. “Both of my parents were educators. My father was also in the military, and he loved to travel. I got my sense of adventure from him, and that had everything to do with the additional avenues of interest in my life.”

After college, she joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in the Philippines. She subsequently took a USAID contract in Afghanistan, where she met her first husband. Their homecoming brought her to San Francisco. “That’s when I started volunteer work at the School for the Blind and got a fellowship for my first masters.” With her degree in hand, she began a new career initiating programs for the blind.

In the meantime she had divorced and met her current husband. “We fell in love and have been together for over 30 years,” she states.

Now partially retired from her practice, DuPree is ready to focus more closely on other lifetime pursuits.  As a classically trained singer, she was part of the chorus in Livermore Valley Opera’s recent production of “Madama Butterfly,” her fourth opera with the company. Singing, playing instruments, and listening to music “of almost any kind” is a favorite way of relaxing and socializing with friends.

She has also devoted much time to Rotary International, serving as President of Pleasanton North Rotary Club and as Assistant Governor for Area IV, six clubs in the Tri-Valley. Currently she is the World Community Service Chair in the International Avenue of Service for District 5170 here in the Greater Bay Area.

In that capacity, last month she traveled to Afghanistan on a joint Rotary/ASSIST International mission for which she and her husband had provided seed funding: the installation of neonatal and cardiac monitoring equipment in a Jalalabad hospital. It was not a trip for the faint of heart. Landing in Kabul, the once-thriving capital, she found it decimated. Conditions were better in their destination city, but danger was ever-present. The group traveled in a convoy of bulletproof vans with armed escorts. Just before their arrival and then after they left, terrorist bombs exploded within a mile of their guest house, killing Afghan nationals.

Still, safety was not her primary concern. “I don’t have a sense of fear in traveling,” she asserts. “I have been in difficult circumstances that others might have trouble with, including a trip to war-torn Lebanon, but that doesn’t stop me from doing the humanitarian work I want to do.”

Her time at the Jalalabad hospital was very rewarding.  On two separate occasions the scarf-wearing DuPree was approached by a woman and her daughter. The mother flipped open her chador to reveal a face beaming with gratitude.  “Without a word spoken, I felt their welcome and interest and saw the smile in their eyes,” she relates. “There we were, face to face on an island of sanity, in a rare moment of humanity.”

While other hospital personnel exhibited more reserve, on the whole “people were extremely welcoming. They wanted us to know two things: that they really need the equipment we delivered, and that they do not want the military to leave the country. They are afraid things will really fall apart in a mass departure.”

DuPree is already fundraising for her next mission, delivering cardiac equipment to the Romanian city of Oradea, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Rotary club. “My attitude is the world is progressively getting smaller. We are one world, one people. As the song goes, ‘Let’s get together.’” She is obviously living and practicing her beliefs.


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