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Truly helping troubled kids starts with educating adults

Posted on 07 November 2017 by Calvin

Professional says that the public doesn’t understand that libraries have become part of the current safety net

Working with adults who work with kids sums up in a few words the career of David Wilmes (photo right by Jaan Willms), a professional trainer, program developer and author. He has over 40 years of experience in the field of early intervention with youth whose behavior puts them at risk for being, in his words, criminalized, pathologized or ostracized from the critical community-based resources that promote healthy youth development.

Wilmes began his career in a unique fashion.

“I grew up in rural Iowa during the time of the Vietnam conflict,” he recalled. He was Number 47 in the lottery and drafted out of college in Dubuque. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that, so I started working on my conscientious objector status. I got it, but had to find alternative service for two years,” he said.

Being a math major, he said he was not equipped to do a lot of traditional kinds of service. But he got to know some nuns and Christian brothers who were going to St. Paul to set up a halfway house. He joined them.

“I was a live-in counselor, mostly a handyman,” he said. “I became fascinated with the challenge of working with kids. Being a math major, I probably approached it a lot differently than other staff. I was more interested in how and why things worked, the program structure and design.”

Wilmes became very involved with the program he was working in, moving quickly to a leadership position. He finished his degree at Metro State and completed his master’s in human development at St. Mary’s in Winona, focusing mostly on parent education and family systems.

At the program he was working with, New Connections, Wilmes said he became fascinated with the kinds of staff he was hiring, and how different staff could get such different responses from kids. “I discovered that many families are not so dysfunctional, but that parents are not prepared to parent the kind of kid they got,” he said.

“I started developing a lot of parent education programs.” He said few parent classes were being offered at that time, and he started teaching them in the classroom. “ABC did a special on New Connections, and I started doing a lot of consulting, helping other communities set up programs.”

“In the mid-1980s, we started daytime programs. We had found residential programs were successful while the youths were with us, but not after. There was no transfer of learning. So we coupled parent education with the day treatment. I started doing a little bit of in-home family counseling and providing training for other institutions. My theory was that if we could get ahead of this thing, we wouldn’t have to go through all the misery of treatment. “

Wilmes published his first book with Johnson Institute. He became director of training at Johnson Institute in 1988, wrote a few more books and worked more on the national scene, but based out of the Twin Cities. He eventually started his own training organization but spent much of his time on the road.

A friend offered him an opportunity with a mobile crisis team, and he took it. “She caught me at the right time,” Wilmes said.

Although he had no experience with mobile crisis work, the idea fascinated him. After that work and a three-year stint at Hazelden as director of training and education in the publishing division, Wilmes spent 14 years with St. Paul Youth Services as director of services.

“I’ve been retiring for the past three years,” he said. “Retiring is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.” His “retirement” includes working with libraries in St. Paul, as well as Seattle, assisting their staffs in working with challenging kids. He also works with Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), special education programs, schools, police departments, community activists, tutors, youth organizations and arts media—almost any entity that works with young people.

Wilmes said the St. Paul Public Libraries had called him because several libraries were having to call the police on a regular basis to deal with problems they were having with their youthful patrons. “Libraries have become the new safety net in our culture, and no one even really knows about it,” Wilmes said. He has worked extensively with Rondo, Rice Street, and Sun Ray libraries, as well as many others.

“I hadn’t worked with libraries before, but I create things as I go—I innovate,” he said. “The first library I worked with had called the police 3-5 times a week. That first summer we worked together they didn’t call the police at all.”

Wilmes said he reviewed with the libraries what had helped in de-escalating the problems, which were with kids as young as 9-12, not just teenagers.

“We started understanding who the kids were, and we realized we were supposed to be the adults,” he was told. Working with the staff at the libraries, Wilmes said his basic theory is that it is all about the adults who are supposed to be in charge. “That’s where you get change,” he explained. “Kids need relationships with those adults they see every single day.”

He said a family bond might be strong, but parents cannot always give kids everything they need. “A lot of parents are dealing with a culture that is foreign to them and not very accepting,” he said. “Personal and historical trauma come together. A lot of families have come from places that were laced with racism, genocide, and all kinds of historical issues that have been passed on and transmitted to kids, on top of personal trauma.”

Wilmes said he started developing concepts related to survival orientation. “In the Midwest, we have developed a culture that is extremely stable and singular regarding how it thinks about norms and expectations. We allow hardly any deviation to any of those things,” he said. Wilmes recalled a workshop he had given in a Minnesota community with a large Latino population. The school superintendent had told him that it had taken three generations for the Norwegians and Swedes to communicate. “How long will this take?” he asked. “It has to be a lot quicker,” responded Wilmes.

He said that in the past this country had allowed its immigrants incredible amounts of time to resettle. When he was in college in Iowa and went home for a holiday with his roommate, they were still speaking Czech on the streets of the town.

“I don’t think our social struc­tures have become adaptive to challenges. We have kids dealing with the aftermath of civil war in Liberia, and parents dealing with genocide and ethnic cleansing. Our fabric of culture in the Midwest is extremely conservative in how we think about what is right and wrong, and very moral­is­tic. We put lots of judgments on folks who don’t think the way we do.”

Wilmes has taken a cognitive approach in his work with his professional training for groups and organizations working with youth. “Relationships is where everything starts,” he said. He sees a society where many parents are really struggling, not getting the kind of support they need in their community. He described many who work two to three jobs, and their kids end up looking for places to connect.

“I don’t think the kids are that much different from when I was young,” he said. “But adults have a lot more stressors today.” And that fact affects their children.

Wilmes emphasized that libraries and Parks and Recreation are places where kids go to connect. “We don’t support rec centers enough, and we either end up criminalizing or medicating kids to get what they need.”

“My mission in life has become helping adults to be more effective with kids who aren’t making those connections anywhere else,” Wilmes said.

“I am optimistic about our young people,” he said. “They are just asking for a relationship. We have all needed adults in our lives.”

Wilmes said he is often asked if he has not gotten burned out or cynical after all these years in his field. “The hardest thing for me is not to do this work….it gives me the chance to be upbeat, spiritual and optimistic in ways that nothing else ever has been for me.”

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