Youth Change was the love of my life.
I lived to be of service to K-12 teachers, counselors, social workers, para-professionals, principals and foster parents.
From 1989 to 2023, I criss-crossed North America, providing workshops in nearly every state and many Canadian provinces.
It was so fulfilling to share my innovative ideas on how to help troubled and struggling children and teens to function more effectively emotionally, socially and in school. I lived on airplanes, racking up a whopping 3 million miles on just one airline. This website delivered inventive ideas, immediately useable help and answers from my Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth workshops. The pages were jam-packed with immediately useable, more effective answers for the most difficult and serious challenges that young people face. My best guess is that I trained at least a million professionals over 33 years from the Florida Keys to the Arctic Circle, and from El Paso, Texas to Newfoundland, Canada.
I lived to teach about the most misbehaved kids and especially the ones who face sexual abuse. It’s a topic this country– and teacher and counselor training schools– successfully ignore despite the grim reality that a staggering 1 in 3 girls live with this invisible terror. I lived to teach exciting, new ways to improve motivation and anger control. I lived to share my creative, cutting-edge ideas how to cope with serious family problems and school failure. I most loved teaching at huge conferences, but I also felt so useful in alternative schools, treatment centers, detention centers, elementary, middle and high schools. I still think that my inventive, state-of-the-art methods offered the best, common-sense, use-now solutions to help fix some of what is wrong with K-12 schools. Naively, I just always believed that some day Coping, School and Social Skills Training would be a widely accepted K-12 solution. I was wrong.
I have been beyond horrified to see the recent trends in K-12 through parts of the nation, the backward solutions offered by people who haven’t set foot in a classroom in decades, the sputtering, ridiculous reaction to teaching Critical Race Theory, and the entire climate of lying, meanness, sabotage and yelling at each other. I was so lucky to have only faced a couple instances of people misbehaving. The one incident that stands out the most is the time a workshop participant criticized my use of the word “incested,” vigorously complaining that it was not a verb. I never thought of the right answer to say to her. And then there was the state department of education director who complained that I referred to troubled students as “troubled.” I never thought of the right answer to say to him either.
It was not a glamorous job, although I’m sure it looked that way from the outside. As a not-morning person, I hated the 3 AM trips to PDX but I loved the sense of satisfaction and contentment I felt on Friday nights arriving back in Portland just before midnight. I mastered learning to change out of my suits and heels in airport bathrooms. I learned how to sleep in an airplane seat without flopping on my neighbor. I learned that my husband was a saint, driving me to PDX in the early morning dark and picking me up days later in the late night black. But, most of all, I learned that teachers, counselors and other youth professionals are for the most part, the most caring, dedicated, selfless, passionate people on the planet. They do the most important work on earth, for relatively little pay, horrible hours and increasingly awful circumstances. Few of them signed up for what they ultimately faced. They signed up to save humanity and further civilization and instead became active shooting experts, drug overdose specialists, assault victims, behavior cops, defacto parents and therapists. These incredibly well-educated, highly experienced, unsung heroes have become one of the most over-regulated, castigated, untrusted professionals in all of America. During Covid, they risked their lives when mandated to return to school. Yet we treat educators like incompetent, biased, money-grubbing scum. We often say to military soldiers “Thank you for your service.” We don’t ever say that to teachers but we do say plenty of criticism.
At age 21, when I started out as a mental health counselor in Oregon, I thought I was going to change the world. As cynical a person as I am, you would think that I would have been smarter than that but I wasn’t. I worked hard at the hopeless goal of making the education and counseling systems for troubled children and teens work better. Sometimes I would be asked to testify at the Oregon legislature, probably because that was a frequent request from workshop and keynote participants. It was there that I met Mavis Chitwood, a youth program director who often testified on behalf of struggling children. During one of her final times testifying, Mavis talked about how she had once been young and naive, and how she had once believed that she could help make the systems in Oregon work better for abused and struggling children. Mavis said she knew she would need to soon retire, heartbroken that she never achieved her dreams for our children and teens in pain and crisis. Mavis is long gone. I am broken-hearted to say that I am the new Mavis.
As I could see the end of my speaking journey bearing down on me like a unstoppable freight train, I would often tell my conference and workshop participants that they needed to take my place, to become the new Mavis that troubled children so desperately needed. Since the pandemic, the ever increasing amount of shootings, the unrelenting regressiveness, the acid-splattered political climate and the epic viciousness that is tearing apart our nation, I no longer know that there will ever be a successful Mavis. As a nation, we have fallen so far that I wonder if repair is even possible. But, even on my most depressed day, I never imagined I would be exiting a world so much more awful than when I arrived.
My son, a small town principal, calls most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can no longer listen to descriptions of his work days. The woman who worked with the most violent, the most damaged, the most disturbed and the most delinquent children and adolescents in the state at the Oregon State Hospital, Clackamas County Adolescent Day Treatment and the Girls Emancipation Program, can no longer stomach what her son faces at school each week. My son lives through more horror, more death, more close calls, more violence and more pain in a single week than I typically faced each year working in our state’s most extreme settings. That is what we have become and what we have let happen to our children, a shocking fact that is unlikely to improve and very likely to worsen.
People who heard me teach often asked how did I become a kind of horse whisperer for troubled kids. In all the thousands of workshops and keynotes, not once, not ever, did I answer that question honestly. But before I go, I desperately need to honestly answer it now. I learned what I learned not on-the-job or from universities but from being raised by wolves in a violent, abusive– and yes, I will finally say it– incestuous family that was as dangerous and deadly as any family I counseled in my long career. Living that lie and keeping that secret nearly bled the life and energy out of me but left me determined to mine every ounce of my horrific childhood to try to get teachers and counselors to see and help the other 1 in 3 girls who live with one of the worst traumas a human being can face. It is a bitter pill to swallow that I failed in that mission.
Today, February 8, 2023, is my day of reckoning. I took down my massive website. Dismantling my life’s work was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I give up. Violence won. Hate won. Racism won. Negativity won. Hopelessness triumphed. It is a horrible time to be a child who struggles. So, the thousands of articles, worksheets and tutorials are gone. My remaining print books are sitting in my office closet. If you want some for just the cost of shipping, get in touch. Or, I can send you the online versions at no charge if you wish. They are all no longer available anywhere now. A couple of my Breakthrough Strategies online classes can be found on some partner websites but I am no longer teaching for any university or anywhere. Thankfully, all 900 plus of the lively, knock-your-socks-off posters are still available on Walmart, and some are still on Amazon. My books, classes, keynotes and posters were like my children, and hopefully were as useful as my actual children are, one a beloved, incredibly effective high school principal and the other a razor-sharp, veteran social worker. They both bring light wherever they go, as I once tried to do. At least that contribution remains.
I don’t miss turning off two alarms at 3 AM Pacific time. I don’t miss routinely being awake 24 hours returning from somewhere far away after a full day of speaking. But my heart, my body and especially my soul are all battered now. I miss all of you. I miss being of service. But, it’s my time to join Mavis in the past and to call it a career.
Ruth Herman Wells, M.S.
275 N. Third Street
Woodburn, OR 97071