Sometimes people make mistakes when they are growing up. It could be minor, maybe stress makes someone slip up and forget a homework assignment, or cut too many classes, but it can escalate. Crime or drug abuse are not problems exclusive to the adult world, and when a teen’s mistakes put them on the wrong path, it is people like Anthony McDonald who come into their lives to help keep them safe and right the course.
McDonald is a Juvenile Probation Officer for Porter County. It is not the job he saw himself in after he graduated from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, or once he earned his Theology degree from Valparaiso University. Figuring out what to do and where to go was a challenge for McDonald once he finished college. He made the decision to move to Valpo for good once his parents started the process of moving to Arizona, and then worked three different jobs for a time.
“I figured it was time for me to venture out on my own,” McDonald recalled. “It was a struggle trying to find my way. With a degree in theology, I thought about my options – going to the seminary or graduate school, but decided against that and found my first job.”
His early experience served as a sampler for all kinds of work. He did security for Opportunity Enterprises, and spent time at a restaurant called Shoney’s. His work at Opportunity Enterprises led him to a job at Porter-Starke Services, which became a key development for his career.
“Porter-Starke is where I started working with kids,” said McDonald. “That’s where I developed my passion for working with kids and families.”
From there, he went to the Porter County Family and Youth Services Bureau and then finally Porter County Juvenile in 2006, where he’s been ever since. Altogether, Mcdonald’s time working with youth and families totals up to about 18 years. He cares deeply about his work and making a positive impact on the youths he works with and the system they go through.
“I think what was so appealing about my first job was making a connection with people,” said McDonald. “My work is so satisfying, I leave here knowing I’m filling a void in some of their lives and some of them just need general guidance.”
There’s nothing simple about McDonald’s work. It requires a deft touch and ability to fill many roles. His primary job is serving as the Juvenile Drug Court Probation officer, where he works with families and kids suffering substance abuse issues.
“A lot of that work is relapse prevention,” explained McDonald. “I’m helping them develop a balanced lifestyle that includes recreational outlets mixed in with counseling, academic performance, and personal gratification. It’s about helping them understand there’s joy in things other than substance use.”
He’s also a family court mediator, which involves helping parents that are divorced or separated come up with schedules, visitation, and compromise “in the best interests of their children.” The last role, which takes up about 40 percent of his workload, is as the Coordinator for Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative for Porter County. In that role, he seeks to reform juvenile justice services towards a direction that seeks to steer kids out of unnecessary secure detention, and develop alternatives to secure detention.
“I think all youths deserve the opportunity to grow and develop into healthy, productive adults,” said McDonald. “That’s the vision that’s stressed throughout the state and throughout the county. It’s rewarding to see things like this come together.”
As a community member, McDonald has experienced all there is to offer in Valparaiso. It’s given him a fantastic group of tight knit friends and family, and diversity has increased significantly since he graduated from college. It is where he loves to go on walks with his daughter and eat pretzels together.
“I have a responsibility to the juveniles I work with,” said McDonald. “On a bigger scale, I have a responsibility to their families who rely on me having a certain level of accountability, but I also have an equally big or larger responsibility to the community at large.”
As a part of this, his department has implemented training on things like implicit bias, and helping the community understand how the adolescent brain works. It is part of a constant effort to make the juvenile justice system better and safer.
“I think I have a responsibility to bring those things to the community,” said McDonald. “To help them feel comfortable and safe when they do come inside our walls. Helping them feel as good as possible when going through this experience is something I’ve dedicated my life to.”
Learning and education are not activities exclusive to schools. They happen all around us, and people like McDonald are both teachers and role models to people who need it most.