To older generations, being young is often looked at as the age of innocence and freedom. There are no bills to pay, mouths to feed, jobs to go to every morning. The only responsibilities kids have is going to school and doing chores around the house. But the further we find ourselves removed from our youth, the more likely we are to forget the pressures that come with being young; the pressure to fit in with certain groups of peers, pressure to do well in school and get good grades, pressure to excel in sports or other out-of-classroom activities.
The Counselors of Vandalia
You Are Enough. You Are Worthy.
And then there are the pressures that some children face which aren’t talked about as much. Struggling with mental illness, either in themselves or a family member, poverty, drug addiction and self-identity are all very real barriers for too many children. Growing up with these struggles and pressures was difficult 30, 40, 50-years ago or more, but trying to navigate these external forces in a fast-paced world full of instant gratification and social media is a challenge that, perhaps, not everyone over a certain age will fully understand.
That’s where the devoted group of school counselors for the Vandalia School District come in. These five women, and those like them across the nation, have dedicated themselves and their careers to guiding tomorrow’s leaders through the maze of childhood and young adulthood. Karen Bennett, a school Social Worker for 28 years; Beth Kern, a school Counselor for 15 years; Kari Hagy, who has been at Vandalia for nine years; Megan McDowell, a school Psychologist for 16 years, in her first year at Vandalia as the Mental Health Interventionist; and Kim Major, in her fourth year at Vandalia. Each counselor brings their own unique professional background, experiences and approach to the children of Vandalia, from the pre-k students to the high school seniors, as they provide social emotional learning and general wellness counseling to students.
The group says they handle a variety of student issues, but helping the students to be resilient was one of the main themes during our interview. When asked to clarify what the students need to be resilient against, one counselor simply said, “Everything,” with emphasis in her voice. Another said, “COVID. COVID has changed their lives.” Yet another said, “Poverty, friends, family, just being told no. […] That delayed gratification is huge, I think, for our kids.” When asked if they encounter issues with gender identity and/or family or parent alienation in their students, they answered that, indeed, they do. Bennett summed it up by saying, “Any kind of mental health issue, stigmatization, or social issue, anything you can think of, we’ve probably dealt with it at least once.”
The job of a social worker is not an easy one, often associated with high stress levels, depression and burnout. With that in mind, why would someone make the decision to become a social worker? All five counselors shared a singular common thread: empathy. They all recognized the ability within themselves to be empathetic towards others. The individual paths that lead them to their career destinations vary greatly.
Karen Bennett’s whole family had a background in education, and she knew she would follow, but she didn’t want to teach. She realized in high school that she wanted to be a social worker, but it wasn’t until college that she decided to pursue a career as a school social worker. “I just think that education is the key to breaking some of these cycles that we’ve talked about. Breaking the cycle of poverty, breaking the cycle of abuse. I really do believe that this lays the groundwork for […] the trajectory after adulthood,” Bennett said.
Formerly a teacher, Beth Kern’s favorite part of teaching was building a relationship with her students and trying to help them through any issues they were experiencing. “So it was just a natural trajectory into school counseling,” Kern said. She loved teaching, but saw a need to get ahead of potential issues students might face before it has the potential to show up in the classroom. Kari Hagy’s road to becoming a school counselor began when she worked for the Department of Corrections as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CADAC). After working with individuals in the prison for five years, the idea of school counseling came up. “I thought, you know what – maybe if we get to these kids younger, then we won’t have as many here [in prison],” Hagy recalled.
The field of psychology had always interested Megan McDowell, and she knew she wanted to pursue something in that area. Her mother had worked in social services, and over the years the two ideas sort of blended into one, resulting in her becoming a school psychologist. “It was towards the end of college that I decided I wanted to go into the school side of [psychology]. […] I like listening to kids, I like trying to help them navigate through their problems, and problem solving is everything,” McDowell said.
Kim Major started out working in speech therapy in schools, and was heavily involved in the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program (PBIS) at the previous school district in which she worked. While not strictly a counseling position, there was an element of counseling to it, she said. When discussing with her husband, who is a long-time Department of Corrections employee, Kim realized she was seeing similar behavior patterns in her students that her husband was seeing in the prison residents. “It’s that schoolto-prison pipeline,” she said. That’s when she decided to pursue school counseling. “I need something more,” she recalled thinking, “I need to take this and run with it.”
Deciding to pursue a specific career path is one thing, but sticking with that career, especially when it can be stressful is quite another. So what is it that makes the hard work and stress worth it for a school counselor? This group can only speak to their own personal feelings and experiences, but when they do, we hear them loud and clear. A matter of importance that one counselor mentioned was simply making sure that students have the tools to be able to think positive thoughts about themselves. Another brought up the ‘aha’ moment when a student finally believes in themselves. Someone else said they hope that students learn to understand that just because they might make poor choices every once in a while, doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid. “I think for me, it would be that [the students] feel supported [and] heard. I hope that the kids learn to advocate for themselves,” Kern said. “I want my kids to feel they’re worth the effort. […] Yes, I’m asking you to do hard things, and yes it’s going to be an uphill battle, but you’re worth the effort. You as a person are worth that hard work,” Bennett said. Truer words were never spoken. Our kids are worth the effort. All of them. Always.