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Spirit of Entrepreneurship: Cherlette McCullough

Cherlette McCullough headshot
Photography by Julie Fletcher

Cherlette McCullough

Founder

Center Peace Couples

and Family Therapy

“As a society, we’re fighting the whole dichotomy of, ‘If I don’t have a mental health diagnosis, I’m mentally healthy.’ That’s just not true.” – Cherlette McCullough

As a case worker for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), Cherlette McCullough loved her work. The Apopka native had grown up with aspirations of being an attorney. Instead, after earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Bethune Cookman College, she went to work for the state, assisting first juvenile offenders and then adults on parole before finding her niche with children and families.

She felt she was really making a difference helping children who were abused, neglected and abandoned. But during her 14 years in child welfare, she recognized a pattern.

“We did a lot of solution-focused therapy, which sometimes does not get to the root of the problem,” she says. “It sometimes doesn’t deal with family trauma and patterns. So one of the things I became passionate about was understanding why we have these families who leave the system, come back, leave the system and come back. I found out these families were not offered long-term therapeutic services, which piqued my interest.”

A Systemic Approach

Today, McCullough is the founder of Center Peace Couples and Family Therapy, a private practice in Winter Park that helps individuals heal from trauma connected to family conflict, marital and premarital issues, infertility, depression, anxiety, family of origin dysfunction, grief and loss. She has authored two self-help books for individuals experiencing life after trauma.

“I went back to school and completed my master’s in mental health counseling,” she says. “I wanted to go into private practice so I could be more innovative and do things differently for the population I wanted to serve.”

In a government setting, services tend to be based on a linear process, she says. “When we talk about mental health counseling, and we talk about helping people break patterns and change behaviors, I don’t think a linear process works. It takes more of a systemic type of approach. We have to look at their entire environment.”

She started her current practice four years ago. Going from government jobs to entrepreneurship was a bit of a jolt. “When you’re working in a group setting or you’re with an employer, there are coworkers, there’s an HR department, there’s an IT department, there’s a cleaning service,” she says.

“It takes a real mind shift to realize you’re completely independent. There’s no department to call to put in a work order.”

Building Her Business

McCullough has a creative way of building her business. She uses social media posts to tell different stories, keeping the names of individuals she has helped confidential.

“The posts are around relationships with self, family and spouses,” she says. “These aren’t cute, fuzzy posts, but stories around anger, frustration, divorce, boundaries, family dysfunction, and coming out to your family about your sexual orientation. Those are really hard topics that people do not want to talk about. My goal is to allow people to see themselves in those posts and spark a response of, “Oh, that’s me! That’s something I can identify with.’”

McCullough, who has been a guest expert on WFTV Channel 9, saw a dramatic uptick in business during the height of the pandemic. “I saw a 30% increase in couples counseling. I saw a lot of couples divorcing. I saw families having anxiety, and children not understanding what was going on. I saw individuals struggling with uncertainty around the pandemic, including financial challenges, depression and one of the biggest issues, grief. People were losing family members and then having to deal with the reality of not being able to say their final goodbyes because travel was restricted. That turned into a double loss, which led to complex trauma.”

Defining Mental Health

She often speaks at events on topics such as fatigue and burnout. “Sometimes this sparks the question, ‘How does that relate to mental health?’

“When we talk about mental health, we’re literally talking about emotions, thoughts and behaviors, and what drives those things. It’s how we perceive things that have happened to us, such as traumatic events that cause us to change our perception. Most of us are resilient, high-functioning people who know how to push those feelings down until they are confronted.”

McCullough says she constantly strives for balance. When she started her business, she was working around the clock. Today she and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, find time to unwind with Orlando Magic games, travel, jazz festivals and family time. McCullough serves on the boards of directors for the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, the Citrus Club and The Faine House.

She has come to realize that just like her clients, she has to seek help when she needs it. “As an entrepreneur. I’ve had to move away from the mindset of, ‘I should know that.’ Part of success is being OK with recognizing that you don’t know everything and embracing the openness of wanting to learn more.”


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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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