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Counselor in death relishes life

As a licensed psychotherapist and executive director of the Life Center, Sheryle Baker spends her days counseling people who are dying or coping with the death of a loved one.

So, whether backpacking by herself into the Rocky Mountain national park or traveling with friends into the depths of the Grand Canyon, Baker understands the necessity of spiritual renewal.

"I've been in the work for 22 years and I'm still not burned out," Baker said. "I have a lot of joy and wonderful friends who are there for the curves along the road."

Baker, 48, said her interest in grief counseling began when she was 16 and her 13-year-old brother died after a long illness. His death, Baker said, "catapulted me into life in a deeper way. It brought home to me the basics of life."

That deeper understanding, coupled with an auspicious introduction to Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross _ a pioneer in the field of death and dying _ helped propel Baker into her life's work.

"She took me under her wing, trusted my intuitive ability and started fine-tuning my ability to become a therapist," Baker said.

Kubler-Ross, although in failing health, is listed as a clinical adviser to the Life Center.

After receiving a master's degree in humanistic psychology, Baker and her husband, Jeff, moved to Odessa, and 17 years ago to Lutz, where they live with Deva, their cat. Jeff Baker is a research librarian at Johnson & Johnson Medical inTampa.

Before taking the helm of the Life Center in 1981, Baker worked as a counselor at the Discovery Institute in Tampa, and later at the University of South Florida's Children's Center, where she counseled seriously ill children.

The Life Center, a non-profit organization in Seminole Heights, offers counseling and workshops to help individuals, families and organizations deal with illness and loss.

Though Baker and a part-time administrative assistant are the only paid employees, the Life Center utilizes a host of qualified volunteer counselors.

Baker, who personally counsels about half the clients who come to the Life Center, said most are coping with the sudden death of a loved one.

"Loss of a loved one is one of the equalizers of life," said Baker, who considers herself a midwife in the dying process. "It's a labor process, facing the unknown."

Remaining positive in the midst of suffering is a challenge, but one Baker said she achieves by "being in the present, in the moment and by being centered in self."

Part of the way Baker centers herself is through activities outside work, including hiking, jogging and meditation. Under a full moon in April, Baker and nine other women will take an 8-mile trip into the Grand Canyon.

"It's humbling to be in the midst of all that glory," said Baker, who makes an annual trip out West. "But it gives me a chance to say thank you for the great opportunities in my life."

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