By Irene Haskins
Reprinted courtesy of the Columbia Daily Tribune
When Dana Harris, an outreach resource counselor at Oakland Junior High School, had a student who needed help, she contacted Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri, and, as she puts it, “got hooked with them.” She soon found herself going to group sessions and becoming more involved with LFCS, which provides pregnancy counseling, mentoring and support to teens, foster care and adoption. “Since I had been a teen mom myself, I understood the dynamics and feelings they go through.”
For more than eight years, since the inception of the Resource Parents Program, Dana, a licensed clinical social worker, has provided support services to the agency’s teen parents, facilitating the twice-monthly support group and providing one-on-one services. She has never missed a group meeting.
“Dana provides a very professional service free of charge to the agency,” said Eileen Long, a social worker with LFCS. “It takes a certain skill and expertise to work effectively with teens who have a general mistrust for professionals in their lives. Dana possesses the skills to put the teens at ease, listen to them without judgment and provide feedback and encouragement in a way for them to hear it.”
The support group has proved to be very effective in assisting teens in meeting their goals. It is difficult for teens to learn parenting skills or concentrate on their school work if they are strug-gling emotionally with a family member, teen father, etc. Dana draws the concerns out of them and assists in providing solutions. Through the group process, she helps them find the answers they need to begin healing from their past. “Our youth have an 85 percent rate of completing their high school education,” Long said, “and many of them go on to attend college in large part because of the support they receive from Dana and the mentors.” For 11 years, Dana also has facilitated an after-school Empowerment Group for boys and girls to connect with each other and adults.
Raised in Americus, Dana, 52, went to schools in Martinsburg and Laddonia, graduating from Community R-VI High School. She had a baby, a daughter, got married “very young” and stayed on the farm and had another child, son Chad. After a divorce, she moved to Mexico, Mo.
A single mom with two children at that point, she “got an opportunity to go to college with expenses paid through Vocational Rehab.” She attended school in Moberly for two years, then the University of Missouri for two years and, in 1994, earned a master’s degree in social work.
Dana worked in the adolescent unit of Mexico’s Arthur Psychiatric Center, then in case management services and therapy, moving up to supervisor.
She had interacted with the principal of Oakland Junior High School when a position as outreach counselor opened up there. “She suggested I try for it, and, happily, I got the job. We have almost 800 students, so I do a lot of conflict mediation. They come from teacher referrals, or I may see one crying in the hallway, and I’ll ask them to come in and talk. It’s a tough age for boys and girls alike.” Interestingly, an unofficial assistant comes to school with Dana every day and serves as the room “greeter” — her faithful companion Bella, a 5-year-old Shih Tzu who “lightens the atmosphere, and the kids just love her.”
When she is not mentoring, Dana loves to garden and takes a lot of pride in her flowers, which she loves giving away, saying, “It’s important to give them away so someone else can enjoy them.” She also is a garage sale enthusiast and co-chairs the annual Garden City subdivision garage sale. Whether going to or having one, she considers garage sales “a cultural experience.”
Daughter Nicole Harris and husband Ryan Gavin, who live in St. Louis, presented Dana with her first grandchild, Emma, in January. “Nicole and I practically grew up together, and we’ve taught each other a lot of things. It wasn’t always easy for her to have a teen mom. The mistakes I made have helped me help the kids I’m trying to help now. I always stress how important an education is to each of them.” Dana also has a very close relationship with her son, Chad Harris, who lives in Columbia.
“Dana has dedicated her life to helping those who have little hope of overcoming their past so that the future can be different for the teens and their children,” Long said. “I think it was my calling to do this,” Dana said, “to get those kids a safe place to be, to try and teach them what I’ve learned from my own experiences.”
Volunteer suggestions are welcome and should be directed to Irene Haskins at (573) 815-1721. Reach Irene Haskins at 573-815-1721 or e-mail email@example.com.