June 2017

Former wilderness center student now fights ‘the good fight’ for at-risk youths

Anthony Stukes, center, at master’s degree graduation ceremonies, Widener University.

Anthony Stukes now has a couple of letters after his name. MSW and LSW, to be precise.

“I am not big on titles,” he says, but he recognizes the importance of the steps he has taken and the value of education. “At least people can know I’m licensed to come up with all these ideas,” he chuckles, referring to the initiatives he has spearheaded to help at-risk youths.

Stukes gained those letters—which denote a Master of Social Work degree and licensure as a social worker—through hard work and dedication, as well as support from Diakon’s tuition assistance program. 

But what is remarkable is not that Stukes—director of Diakon Youth Services’ Weekend Alternative Program—earned them; rather, it’s the journey he has taken to them.

Stukes, who has transformed the lives of close to 6,000 youths over the years, was himself once a student at the Diakon Wilderness Center, which serves adjudicated youths. 

It was 1995 and “I was getting into a lot of trouble because of family problems and peer choices,” he says today. “I had given up on the concept of education and school and found myself involved in the court systems.”

The then-16-year-old knew his next court appearance might lead to a less-than-appealing stay in a facility near his home in west Philadelphia. He asked his caseworker to find him a placement that could really help him.

“One of the conditions I demanded of the caseworker was to make sure it was a good placement; make sure it is safe, make sure they care,” he remembers.

While terrified that the Wilderness Center was located in the woods—a place he had never been—Stukes’ found any regrets quickly fading following his arrival at the Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania-area campus, where the weekend program is based.

“Although I was surrounded by people and an environment completely foreign to me, I realized none of what I had been doing up to that point was working and none of that matched up with the things I dreamed about. I needed somebody to teach me how to make my dreams a reality,” he says.

Anthony Stukes at a much-earlier ceremony: 1995 graduation from the residential program at the Diakon Wilderness Center.

At the same time, Stukes felt safe and able to trust unconditionally.

“The people I was exposed to naturally believed in my spirit. That fueled my motivation,” he says. “For a year, I received positive reinforcement and encouraging feedback every day. The process improved my self-awareness and allowed me to see myself in a positive light mentally”

He stayed at the wilderness center—which at that point had a full-time residential program—for a year.

Two years later, he returned as an employee.

“And I have been here ever since,” says Stukes. “What surprises some people is not only the likelihood of a former client coming back as an employee, but also having the longevity and consistency and continuing motivation to support teenagers.”

“I call it ‘the good fight.’ It is a fight worth doing.”

In the 19 years since he returned to the wilderness center, he has spent most of his employment with the Weekend Alternative Program, which provides therapeutic activities, community service projects, guidance and mentoring for at-risk youths on the weekend, a time they’re often most susceptible to peer influence. He has served as director of the program since 2006.

“I live 90 miles away. It has not been easy with a wife and children. Weekend after weekend, I am gone,” he says. “Though it has been tough, I’ve always felt like I was helping. A lot of that has to do with the sanctuary that I know can exist here [for the youths]. Environmental barriers are some of the most challenging obstacles to overcome for adolescents. Having personally experienced the power of positive mentors in a nurturing environment, I strive to recreate that experience for youths every weekend.”

Always looking to improve his ability to help the youths enrolled in the program, Stukes first earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and then went on to complete his master’s degree in social work this year.

“I reached a point where I needed to expand my knowledge and get the latest best-practices,” he says of his motivation. Helping him reach that goal possible was Diakon’s tuition assistance program. “I started using TAP in 2015 and was able to offset the cost of books and pay for six credits [toward my degree].”

Anthony Stukes enjoys a moment at his master’s degree graduation.

Describing his master’s degree in social work as a helping degree, Stukes believes the education enables him to be better equipped to support the youths he serves.

“While I do pull from my personal experiences, I wanted to learn the names of every technique I was using naturally. I wanted to know exactly what it was,” he says, adding that he has empowered himself to be more accepting and intentional when supporting youths.

“I can assess things more quickly now. I know the technical terms for methods and interventions. And I know a whole lot more about the consequences of traumatic childhood experiences and brain development during the ages of 12 to 25.”

Anthony Stukes in the rural setting of the Diakon Wilderness Center with Stephanie Kribs, a Weekend Alternative Program staff member since 2004. 

Now also a licensed social worker, Stukes plans to start his own private practice as a mobile therapist this fall. However, he also plans to continue having a positive impact on the lives of the youths enrolled in the weekend program.

“The kids are what keep me here,” he says, adding that consistently supporting them through what may be the most difficult times in their lives gives him a sense of purpose.

“I am well aware of the many challenges our youth face on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some have been convinced that there is no one they can trust or count on, so we must increase our therapeutic efforts to show them there is still hope. I call it ‘the good fight.’ It is a fight worth doing.”

Anthony Stukes with other Weekend Alternative Program staff members during a canoeing activity.

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