Sometimes the best help a person in need can get comes from someone who has “been there, done that”. Those are the people who truly understand what you are going through, whether it is the death of a loved one, a divorce, or drug addiction. Enter Dr. Teri DeLane. Let us travel back to the year 1967, for that is where Dr. DeLane’s remarkable journey began.
13-year-old Teri came from an abusive, violent, drug-addicted family in Las Vegas, and in the summer of 1967 she and a friend decided to hitchhike up to San Francisco to participate in Summer of Love. For those too young to remember, Summer of Love was the convergance of some 100,000 young hippies on the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury that summer of 1967. Teri spent much of the summer just hanging out in the area, staying with one person or another, until eventually she contracted pneumonia and ended up back in Vegas, By age 14, she was using heroin, running the streets, dropped out of school, and spent time in and out of juvenile detention centers. When she was 16, she spent a year in a youth prison, and by age 20 she had overdosed three times.
And then Teri discovered Delancey Street, the renowned San Francisco-based self-help program for drug addicts and ex-offenders. Teri entered Delancey Street Foundation in the early 1970s as a teenage prostitute, drug addict and school drop-out. Teri learned more than how to stop using drugs at Delancey Street. She learned about being part of community and how to trust. “The Delancey Street Foundation saved my life by surrounding me with people who would not allow me to fail. The process is taking a person and giving them the tools necessary to live by, thrive by, to grow, to push you to your best potential, to pull out your strengths instead of always concentrating on your weaknesses,” she said.
Dr. DeLane would ultimately not only finish high school, but go on to earn two Master’s degrees and a doctorate in clinical psychology. It was while working on the doctorate that she became involved with running and developing programs for incarcerated men and women that were offshoots of the Delancey Street program. Then came a chance to work with a juvenile justice reform program as an advisor, and Teri knew she had found her calling. ”My heart and soul has always been youth because I was someone that got it and I desperately wanted to have an impact on changing kids. Because I know that if you get in early and really work on them and help them learn to trust, they can change,” she said.
In 1998, Teri DeLane founded the Life Learning Academy, a non-residential San Francisco Unified School District charter school, based on the Delancey Street Foundation principles, that serves the city’s highest-risk, highest-need students. The school tracks a 99% graduation rate with 85% of the students going on to college. The kids that do so well here are the kids with histories of school failure, truancy, arrest and substance abuse. The ones that traditional school settings can’t provide for. The ones that would otherwise end up dead or in prison in a few short years.
“The idea about developing this school came up when Mayor Willie Brown contacted Delancey Street because the juvenile justice system in San Francisco was falling apart.”
DeLane incorporated practices of the Delancey Street program that could be integrated into a school environment: creating community, engagement, leadership, dress code and working toward rewards.
And she trains her teachers and staff. “It takes training to help people understand the complexity of teenagers. The way to engage them is a push and pull process. You give them a little and you take a little. I train the staff to teach the kids how to think about their thinking so they can tune in and help them understand that have control of themselves, but it takes a long time to change that. The kids are so engrossed in negative thinking and believing that they are failures. What you need to know about teenagers is that they push against structure and crave it at the same time.”
Delane knows the background of each student and shares that with the staff. Taking into account a student’s home environment, or even lack thereof, is key to understanding the behavioral issues that some of the students may have. Even so, the Life Learning Academy does not rely on counseling and has no counselors on staff. “We don’t need them,” she says, and recalls her own experience as an at-risk student in a traditional school system. “I was sent to counseling because I was acting out in school. No one said, “Wow, I get it. Her environment and her family are complete disasters. Now wonder she is angry, no wonder she is fighting.” It wasn’t me that had the disorder really; it was the family system.”
“The way I changed wasn’t through traditional therapy. It was by coming into an organization with people that helped me find my strengths, who yelled at me about the things that were going to get me in trouble and who kept me moving forward,” she said. “Because the kids keep having to go back into their family environments I want to teach them tools to make them stronger and not take them back through their history. Not to open them up but to empower them. They may go home to a horrible environment, but they spend a lot of their waking hours in a positive, fun, exciting place. Kids know that they can come in in the morning, be in a bad mood and people aren’t going to be on them and we will notice they are in a bad mood.”
Students are expected to take part in community service projects, internships and even to pursue part-time jobs. “What we do at the school is a circle around the kids with a number of things that have to be included in their lives in order for them to have a full life: education, a job, having money and a portion of the circle has to be learning how to give back,” she said. “I teach that the way you get is by giving. Not by sitting around talking about your problems. We don’t stay stuck in our past. What we do is work through it, let it go and move on.”
All the students know Delane’s background, see what she has accomplished and witness her giving back every day. And they know that the way she moved on from a troubled life is what they are learning at Life Learning Academy. That realization allows trust to gain its foothold.
“I think I am really lucky because I have never forgotten where I come from. And as a result, I have gratitude to the ends of the earth because there is no better feeling in the world than watching kids become part of this community and start thriving and growing.”
Nobody can know how many lives Dr. DeLane has saved, how many she has kept from a lifetime of drug-addiction, prison, homelessness, but I suspect the number is high. Teri DeLane is truly an example of someone who has given back … and keeps on giving. Two thumbs up to Dr. Teri DeLane!