The Accidental Youth Worker

By Hector Sapien, LCSW

I grew up in El Paso, Texas, reaching adulthood during the Vietnam era. I had always liked fixing things, so I decided it made sense to pursue an engineering degree. It turns out life had other plans. This is the story of how I became a youth worker.

Hector Sapien, circa 1973

Hector Sapien, circa 1973

I was a somewhat restless, adventurous, and easily distracted older teen of my times, and engineering didn’t cut it for me. Every day, I looked at the world around me and just wanted things to be better! (Did I mention how restless I was?) Before I could choose a new course, however, the draft lottery did it for me: I was #112, which meant I was going to war. Then, in the course of six months, I had two major automobile accidents. Both were in Volkswagen bugs, both resulted in head injuries, and both landed me in the intensive care unit—the second time in worse shape than the first.

Eventually I returned to college with special permission from the dean—I was under probation since all my “incompletes” had turned into F’s—and soon had a meeting with my advisor. She asked if I wanted to stick with my major. This question took me by surprise; it hooked me. I hadn’t thought of changing my major until that very moment, and so I asked myself in that instant, “What would I enjoy learning?” I’d always been fascinated by psychology, so while my advisor tapped her pencil on the desk, I nervously blurted that out.

Since I was studying psychology and I liked to play, I said I’d like to work with kids. It didn’t take long for her to pull up a sheet from what might have been the ‘unfillable jobs’ pile: residential treatment worker.
I took it.

Next, she asked for my minor, and since I desperately wanted her to stop tapping her pencil, I quickly answered “biology.” Though I had no logical explanation for my answers, I discovered decades later they were a perfect match. I found myself back in school, on a radically different course than before. (By the way, because of the car accidents, I received a temporary draft medical deferment. The draft expired in several months’ time, and the whole issue became moot.)

My next stop was the university’s job assistance service, where I hoped to get a lead on a job that could help me pay my way through school. The young woman there asked me what I wanted to do. It was another perplexing question. Hmmm, I thought. What would I love to do? Since I was studying psychology and liked to play, I said I’d like to work with kids. It didn’t take long for her to pull up an info sheet from what might have been the “unfillable jobs” pile: residential treatment worker. I took it. (Be careful what you wish for!)

I was soon working at the local residential treatment center—run by nuns—where I learned that child and youth care workers were staying an average of two years before burning out and moving on. I found out why. Let’s just say: it was fun playing hide-and-seek after dinnertime, but boy, that job “ate my lunch” on several occasions. But the experience also unintentionally immersed me in the moment; time would whiz by when I was at work because of this “immersive flow.”

I learned much later that so often, these kinds of accidents—which often seem like catastrophes at the time—turn out to be the experiences that enable our lives to unfold more fully.

Not surprisingly, I too lasted about two years at the treatment center, but during this time I attended my first youth worker conference in Austin, Texas. The conference workshops were experiential and activity-based, something I’d never known. I loved them! More importantly, I met like-minded peoplesome who’d been doing this work more than two years, some less and we exchanged tales of our blood, sweat and tears. By listening to and sharing stories (mostly the frustrating ones), I learned I had things in common with others in the field. I began to see common denominators that brought people to this work and kept them going. I also recognized we were in the midst of a child and youth work movement that, though in its infancy, was slowly and steadily growing. I jumped on the bandwagon. I had found my niche! (And here I am, about 48 years later, blogging about it. Who knew?)

I share this mind-expanding perspective with young people, hoping to help them reframe their experiences as opportunities—ones that can ‘make them’ instead of ‘break them.’

It was a child and youth worker friend who first reflected back to me how my accidents bumped me into a rewarding professional life. I learned much later that so often, these kinds of accidents—which often seem like catastrophes at the time—turn out to be the experiences that enable our lives to unfold more fully (we call this Transformational Learning).  I am a better child and youth worker because of them. They taught me to shift my perspective, to use them as tools to thrust me forward toward optimal development. Now I share this mind-expanding perspective with young people, hoping to help them reframe their experiences as opportunities—ones that can “make them” instead of “break them.”

As a field we’re focused on what we have, rather than what we don’t have. The trainings I provide—like Youth Thrive™ and Families Thrive—are founded on strengths-based approaches, resilience in the face of trauma, and the power of social connections. When I’m providing training, I frequently reflect on the people who were there for me as I stumbled, dusted myself off, and proceeded on my youthful adventures (hopefully, more awakened and appreciative). As youth workers, we want to facilitate young people’s abilities to develop, accept and connect not just with us, but with the people in their lives whose caring support will help them flourish.

Wherever you are on your youth worker journey, welcome. Know that you will never be the same, and you’ll be better for it. We all have our stories; this is mine. Put yours out there! 

Hector lives with his wife in Sedgwick, Maine, where his private practice includes a clinical caseload of young people ranging from ages 4 to 22. He is a founding partner of Youth in Focus.

Jen Smith