‘Let’s stop hurting each other and instead, love’

John Asuncion taps into Belfast roots, personal struggles for inaugural book

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 3:00pm

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Following a period of troubling years growing up, former Belfast resident John A. Asuncion, a mental health counselor, has released his inaugural book to help those also facing hardship in their life. 

Tapping into his work as a counselor, Asuncion drew inspiration for Malcolm the Musician: So Close to Home (Epigraph Publishing) from the psychological and emotional abuse, as well as the damaging effects of maltreatment, and the consequent pain and suffering he encounters in the lives and experiences of his clients. 

“It was my intention to demonstrate the immense heartache caused by the phenomenon gaslighting, confront the injustice its victims endure, and highlight the power of the human spirit to rise through adversity,” he said. 

The book is designed to be a resource for those healing from abuse, Asuncion noted, as the book offers readers 10 affirmations — lessons the main character learns — to overcome fear and regain confidence. 

“For instance, ‘Lesson 1: Using my voice, I will be heard. My sound adds value,’ may be used as a statement we incorporate in our daily mindfulness practices to remind ourselves of our personal worth,” said Asuncion.

The focus for Malcolm the Musician: So Close to Home is centered around a piece of land mere steps away from Asuncion’s home, and in-home office, of nearly seven years. 

“I focused the book around the approximate acre of land in the City of Poughkeepsie, New York, because of the park’s namesake: Malcolm X, and the uniqueness of its placement within our community — the park is surrounded by the Fallkill Creek, an elementary school, a place of worship, a community center, and the seat of our county government among others,” said Asuncion. 

The park was renamed to Malcolm X Park from Morse School Park in 1978, according to Asuncion, as a result of efforts led by the Afro-American Youth Movement. 

“More than 40 years later, the Malcolm X Park remains a monument to a person whose life was taken in the fight for equality and justice,” said Asuncion. 

Development for the book began a year ahead of its December 2019 release with Asuncion’s children — Elijah, 13, and Isabella, 11 — providing the illustrations. 

“Interestingly, some 23 years ago, my friend and mentor, [Belfast] artist Vertene Carter gifted me with the watercolor set used to make the images in the book,” Asuncion noted. 

The writing of the book was directly influenced by Asuncion’s time in Belfast, particularly during the formative years of his life. 

“I have come to realize that I inadvertently wrote about themes from that particular period of time: an outcast who escapes difficult circumstances, the power of encouragement, and our ability to traverse difficult circumstances,” Asuncion stated. 

Malcolm, the book’s main character, hears an unknown sound at one point during the story. 

“He hears the words: ‘You are going to make it. I believe in you,’” said Asuncion. “The sound helps him see there is treasure within him and he comes to discover that he is worth knowing.”

This portion of the story, in particular, was influenced by Asuncion’s time with Belfast Community Outreach Program in Education (BCOPE). 

“BCOPE and the community of support I found in Belfast have been that very sound for me,” he said. “My experience in these spaces has strongly influenced my desire to help people foster more healthy and loving relationships with themselves and others, connect with their personal value, actualize their potential, and find joy.” 

The City of Belfast and BCOPE communities became, and remain, a safe place for Asuncion. 

Born and raised on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii, Asuncion moved to Belfast during the mid or late 1990s. 

“I lived with my maternal family near the old poultry plant and witnessed the transformation of the land to the extraordinary space it is right now,” he recalled. “This opportunity expanded my awareness of the benefits public parks offer us, primarily with regard to our quality of life.” 

His life was shaped by a trio of strong-willed and influential females: his Aunt Jamie Parsons, his grandmother, Alfreda Lewis, and his mother, Joy L. (Lewis) Asuncion, SCPO-Ret.

Parsons became a primary caregiver for Asuncion, while Lewis, a local journalist, made a place for him in her home. 

“Both modeled love and compassion, as well as an indomitable spirit,” he said. 

Following a two-decade stint in the U.S. Navy, his mother returned to Belfast and devoted 23 years to a career in banking. 

“Now retired, my mom devotes a great deal of her time to community-building and advocacy work for our military veterans,” he said. “She demonstrates courage and the heart of a helper, and I continue to learn from her example.”

While in school, Asuncion battled years of bullying and eventually dropped out of high school. 

The BCOPE program, from which Asuncion graduated on time and found hope, became the place Asuncion could finally understand his place in society, and his purpose in life. 

“For many of us, it was home, a place where we found understanding, encouragement, and belonging,” he said. 

When thinking of program founder Helen M. Scipione, now the head of the Zenith alternative education program for sophomores through seniors at Camden Hills Regional High School, Asuncion circles back to the sentiment: “Wow...she really cared!” 

“In retrospect, Helen modeled for me the ways in which a humanitarian leads,” he said. “She was always smiling, always daring, and always passionate. She created an educational environment that was ahead of its time: trauma-informed; tailored to the individual, yet community-centered; and embodied holistic and integrative, intra- and inter-personal learning within a diverse program milieu that enhanced our personal growth and development.” 

The classroom was not the only place Asuncion was shaped, though. 

While a member of BCOPE, he volunteered for Head Start and the Belfast Public Library. 

“From these experiences, I learned the value of civic engagement and secured my very first paid job as a library page,” he said. 

Asuncion participated in what he described as a life-changing apprenticeship with Avena Botanicals and as a prep-cook at the Belfast Co-op. He studied horticulture at the Waldo County Technical Center with Patrice Jensen, who introduced him to dance and guided him in his quest to find community at the Belfast Dance Studio. 

He soon abandoned smoking and turned devoted his time to practicing yoga at the Belfast Yoga Studio. Unearthing a love for the arts, he took music lessons at Ventura Music and explored spirituality along the path of maturation and self-discovery. 

“All these experiences have certainly influenced who I am today and the person I am becoming,” he stated. “My worldview, my work as a mental health practitioner, the ways in which I care for my children, and the art I create have strong ties to the family, friends, teachers, and neighbors who made Belfast a home for me.”  

The future is bright for Asuncion as he works to grow his business and use his passion for the arts to create more content to help those discover themselves. 

His next literature piece will be centered around a character named Rose. He has started down a path of song-writing and producing content for his counseling business to address injustice and help caring professionals access opportunities for healing and growth. He recently launched a YouTube channel, The Ukulele Right Now, to offer subscribers encouragement for the day with music produced in the moment. 

Asuncion hopes to expand the work of his counseling business to Maine in the near future, and he is currently in process of obtaining licensure from the state to offer mental health counseling services. 

Asked what he wants readers to take away from his story, Asuncion wants readers to remember two things — you are capable and you are worth it. 

“Different does not mean bad,” he said. “Let’s stop hurting each other and instead, love.” 

Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com