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Patience keeps therapist caring for troubled teens

By Brandon Pyle *

Beyond a formidable gate and tall fences, the white-washed buildings of Excelsior Youth Center resemble a prison compound. 

It’s tucked in the forest off Indian Trail Road, an out-of-the way location that resembles many of its clients’ positions in society.

Bryan Stanfill
Bryan Stanfill

The in-patient treatment center for youth houses 50 offenders with criminal records and chemical dependencies, desperate children who have experienced rejection, said Bryan Stanfill, a therapist who also has a part-time private practice.

These teens are society’s throwaways,” he said.  “Most have failed in other settings.”

Bryan has spent almost 10 years in a job he was not sure he wanted and planned to be temporary. 

After finishing a bachelor’s degree in English at Whitworth College in 1995, he took a job as a youth director at East Valley Presbyterian for a year. 

Realizing that was not his calling, he applied to work at Excelsior—to pay his bills. 

He began in 1996 as a group living counselor, which meant helping a group of 10 to 15 teens  “just get through the day.” 

After two years, Bryan became a case manager, working primarily with the other organizations associated with Excelsior.  In 2000, he became a therapist, still thinking he would leave. 

Eventually, he decided he needed to study counseling and completed a master’s at Whitworth in 2002.

“Many people would have left,” he said.  “The young people at Excelsior are not glamorous clients for a social worker, not the kind to thank or hug someone who helps them.  I don’t think anyone can really understand these youth.” 

Excelsior deals primarily with dependents of the state—orphans—from 12 to 17 years old.  Most have no family.  Many have been through 27 or more foster homes. Excelsior specializes in “dual-diagnosis” cases, youths with a chemical dependency and depression, for example. 

Bryan understands the difficulties they have, but does not necessarily endorse the labels they have:  “My philosophy is there’s always a deeper issue underneath chemical dependency.” 

So why does he stay? 

“I used to think that a sense of calling was trumpets, banners and angels, and if you’re lucky, Jesus,” recalled Bryan, who grew up in Presbyterian youth groups and camps and now attends New Community Church.

“The reality is that I can do this work, and many people can’t, so I think this is where God wants me,” he said. “I can’t walk away from these youth, even though the tragedy of the abuse and neglect they have experienced could make me want to.  I feel committed to these teens.

“Regardless of their reason for being here, their basic needs are for security, belonging and safe relationships with adults who are emotionally available to them,” he said.  “Their chemical dependency is secondary to those issues.”

His sense of calling doesn’t mean day-to-day fulfillment.   

Bryan admits there are days when he wishes his personality
, characteristics and experience did not enable him to do his job. 

“These teens are a messy mission,” said Bryan, who puts his own agenda aside to continue to care for and love teens who usually avoid opening up. 

He is willing to be patient.

Belief in the idea of planting seeds sustains him.  He becomes satisfied with small steps, like someone sitting in a room and having a conversation with him about life experiences, anger or considering healthier decisions.

Considering the broken condition of youth when they come to him, Bryan focuses on small steps that he said would often be overlooked. 

“You have to adjust what success means,” he said  “It is not always realistic to think that every youth will graduate from college and go on to have a healthy, well-adjusted life.”

Bryan knows his “work” leaves Excelsior grounds unfinished as the youth leave, but he hopes that down the road, something may click for the young people he now devotes his life to. 

He knows a child needs God, but the client must initiate such a discussion, because Excelsior is a nonprofit that works closely with the Department of Social and Health Services, so he is not free to voice his convictions. 

Excelsior’s roots, however, are in the Catholic Church.  The Sisters of the Good Shepherd built the facility in 1963 and transferred operations in 1982 to the nonprofit.

In frustration, Bryan wonders “why we as a society or church don’t take care of these kids.” 

Knowing the teens are some of the most needy in society, he sees it as a natural place for outreach.

“If Jesus were walking around in the flesh, this is where he would be, because these are the lepers, the prostitutes—sometimes literally,” Bryan said.

“If I didn’t have the sense of hope and redemption from my faith I couldn’t tolerate doing what I do.  My belief in God and God’s desires for our lives and relationships is the inspiration for what I do and the model for how I try to do it,” he said.

Bryan sees his work as “incarnational ministry.”  By that he means it’s about relationships and accepting and loving the teens even though there are no guaranteed results.

So he takes the small victories as they come. 

“For one teen, it could be simply keeping him alive for a couple more years,” said Bryan, who has learned to accept that, and always to hope for more.

For information, call 328-7041.

* Written for The Fig Tree as part of apublic relations class at Whitworth College


By Mary Stamp,The fig Tree - Copyright © December 2005