I graduated from Columbine High School, class of ’83. I went to Texas A&M University to study finance & accounting but graduated in 1989 with a degree in psychology instead and hoped to become a sports psychologist. My first job out of college was overnight at an RCCF – residential care for children facility near Sloans Lake in Denver. My jobs were to clean the toilets and keep the children in their rooms and from running away as the doors were not locked. We also had to read their files – the stories of their short lives and how they got there. They were typically taken away by social services for the horrific abuses they experienced and witnessed at home.
I was told that 90% of those children would have criminal histories, substance abuse issues, mental health problems, and likely enter abusive relationships. I had no idea that the stories of these children would figuratively become the stories of my adult clients 15 years later.
My wife (30 years so far) and I were married later in 1989; I went to work with intellectually disabled adults (i.e. Down’s Syndrome & Fragile X) in community-based vocational training and support services. I helped the men and women develop job skills and provided support in community-based jobs. Those first three years at Laradon Hall in north Denver seem forever ago. The work was fun with this great group of people. The biggest issues to help them cope with were hurt feelings – It’s all about relationships! While I enjoyed it, I wanted a bigger challenge and landed a clinician position at Adams Community Mental Health Center. I joined their day services program for chronic mentally ill adults who struggled to function in most areas of their lives. I recall joining their team just after 13 clients had committed suicide (1 murdered?) in the year before I arrived. Clearly one of the reasons why mental health is so important to me.
At ACMHC my team developed a program to teach daily living skills and offered support services. We offered training in daily living skills and provided much-needed supports to those living independently in their own apartments. Medication management was often an issue. Our team helped individuals stabilize their lives and reduce medication errors and re-hospitalizations. My wife grew homesick for Scotland and we moved there when our son was 1 year old in 1995. I continued working with both populations there, except in community-based residential support services. I will never forget those residents who had grown up in institutional care and our team supported their transition and independent living in the community. Our daughter was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1997 and we moved back to Denver in 2001 so that I could attend graduate school. I was a long way from sports psychology and moved further away as I followed my passion for clinical psychology.
I discovered the field of domestic violence counseling “accidentally,” yet nothing in life is coincidental. I met many Columbine graduates who were present for the massacre and were now freshmen at UC Denver in the Intro Psych class for which I was the teaching assistant. I hoped to take an internship at Columbine HS, my alma mater, after witnessing the events on television from overseas and now meeting these students. Unfortunately, the agency providing student interns could not renew their grant and I was left looking for other options. I called the ACMHC outpatient office near my house hoping to land a spot. The manager directed me to her husband’s agency, which specialized in court-ordered counseling for domestic violence and drunken driving cases. I chose the DV path after Dr. Walsh explained that the clients are “Everyday Joes” dealing with anger and family issues. “Normal” people with extreme issues seemed perfect and interesting. Also, Dr. Walsh, the owner, and my supervisor was an older Irishman and we just clicked having recently returned from Scotland.
The past 16 years of my career focused on helping individuals understand the pieces of their personal puzzle on a different level than previously. It all started with family dynamics, parent-child, sibling relationships, etc. I’ve never worked with anyone whose life was going well. ‘In-crisis’ was more like it. While many people follow the Golden Rule, most clients grew up in environments where the rule wasn’t so golden. It was more like, “Do unto others before they do unto you!” Or, “Do unto others, then split!”
Not only have I counseled adults, but I’ve also worked with hundreds of teens over the 30 years, including adolescent girls adjudicated in the Division of Youth Corrections. “Adjudicated” is a nice word for incarcerated. And their personal and family stories…?!!! I’ve truly valued helping the men and women I’ve met along the way. To know that they healed their childhood wounds and overcame & re-wrote the programming from their family and youth brings great pleasure. Yet, this isn’t enough…
Student-Athletes for Healthy Relationships (STAHRS.org), my 501c3 nonprofit organization, was born on Valentine’s Day evening 2018 following my group counseling that night. Over the years, so many men said, “I wish that I had this in high school. I would have been a better man, husband, and father.” My goal with STAHRS is to introduce curricula from 30 years of mental health and family violence experience. I want to teach young men and women how to avoid the programming they’ve received while growing up. I believe that the key to avoiding the pitfalls and programming is conscious awareness and tangible tools in their backpacks plus compassion, empathy, and understanding of their peers’ lives too.
STAHRS’s mission is to lower the trajectory of violence in our school, families, and communities. STAHRS’ goals are to reduce teen dating violence, bullying, sexual assaults, and substance abuse by explaining basic human psychology and behaviors, especially in reaction to experiencing interpersonal violence of all forms. Eliminating family violence should eliminate bullying. Building acceptance and inclusion should reduce bullying, depression, anxiety, and teen suicidality. STAHRS believes that we can make our schools safer from all forms of violence, including school shootings, by teaching Relationships 101 & “common sense” made obvious. After reviewing the research by Dr. Peter Langman (schoolshooters.info) and corresponding, I believe that our efforts can have positive effects here too.
Please join us on this mission.
The Big Fire is dedicated to all the men, women, and children who’ve grown up witnessing family violence, and tried to do a better job than what they experienced. It is dedicated to all of the boys and girls today who want to make a difference in our world tomorrow through accepting everybody for their personal differences since none of us are truly alike (except identical twins).
I want to thank my mentors who helped me to advance through their experience and knowledge – Dr. Vincent Walsh, Ph.D., Ms. Traci Johnson, LPC, and Ms. Amy Chandler, MSW. Each taught me so much, and I continue to use it every week with my professional clientele.
And THANK YOU to Bruno for helping the Morraine Park bunnies, and “the notorious” Juliette for her incredible offer to participate in her wonderful journey to help women and children through The FreeBird Foundation. Your partnership and support mean the world to me!