From Stage To Page, Spectrum Youth Services Leader's Memoir Reflects On Mental Health & Resilience
Whether it's on stage or on the page, Mark Redmond likes to tell stories. Sharing his experiences has been a way to connect with others in his day job as executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, where he's spent nearly 20 years working with homeless and at-risk youth. Now he's putting his storytelling to work in a new memoir about his nearly four decades in that field.
VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, about his new memoir Called, published by Onion River Press. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Your book is called Called. This title seems quite intentional to me, in the sense that you had a calling to do this kind of work. But you took a kind of circuitous path to get there, working with at-risk and homeless kids. Out of college, you were on a very different path. What can you tell us about what you did before you found your actual calling with this job at Spectrum Youth Services?
Mark Redmond: So I majored in finance at Villanova University, I was president of the Finance Society, I finished near the top of my class, and I got this great job in a manager training program for a multi-billion dollar insurance company on Madison Avenue. So that's what I was doing. That was the path I was on.
And I heard about Covenant House in Times Square, which worked with teenage homeless and runaway youth. And a friend was there and said, "We could do some volunteer help." So I would go there, one night per week after work.
Time Square then was very dangerous place — now it's quite Disney-fied — I would work with the kids there, hand outs snacks, play basketball with them, those kinds of things. And I began to realize, that's what I really enjoyed doing. And I remember going back to a meeting with my corporation, and there was a senior vice president, he had the 10 of us in the room. And he said, "We're now at $300 billion in assets, and we need to get to $500 billion in assets by the end of the decade! And that's what you all need to dedicate yourself to!"
And I just remember sitting there thinking, "That's not what I want to dedicate myself to." So, shortly after that, I quit my job and I moved into not even an apartment, it was a room across from a crack house and a strip club, and started working with homeless youth. Some people thought I was crazy. It felt like the sanest thing I had ever done in my life. I had not even a little bit of a doubt when I actually made the decision.
A memoir like the one you've written is not gonna work unless you're very honest with your readers. And you are honest with your readers ... You talk about struggling with mental health challenges, things like depression. How have your own experiences in life contributed to the work that you're doing now?
I did go through a serious depression in 1994, after I got divorced. And it's funny, that's just one chapter in the book, and people have really focused on that. Because I talked about how I needed to go for professional help. I needed to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. And I went on medication, and I worked through it, and I became better.
I think there is such a stigma in our country about mental health, and especially for men, and especially for men from my Irish-Catholic cultural background, where you're just supposed to "tough things out." That chapter has affected a lot of people.
And it made me a more compassionate person. Because the young people that we work with [at Spectrum], they have very traumatic backgrounds and deep suffering. And I now know what it is like to suffer like that. And it really helped me in my work with young people, just to be more compassionate and more understanding.
"I needed to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. And I went on medication, and I worked through it and I became better. I think there is such a stigma in our country about mental health, and especially for men, and especially for men from my Irish-Catholic cultural background, where you're just supposed to 'tough things out.'"
Working with at-risk youth at Covenant House in New York, then working with Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington for nearly 20 years... I do have to ask — because I am sure that these are difficult jobs to do, and you must see a lot of difficult things — how do you avoid burnout in a field like that?
First of all, and I even tell our staff, this is a marathon. It's not a sprint. You need to take care of yourself. And while we do help many, many young people, you're not going to be successful with all of them.
I take time off. I start every day with meditation, and with prayer, and with yoga. And I have a wonderful wife who's supportive of me. I exercise. I go to the Green Mountain Monastery in the Northeast Kingdom once a year to spend a weekend in retreat. And I think all of those things are what has really sustained me for, really, decades.
It sounds like you were somebody very well-prepared to take on this kind of work. And yet, the foreword to your book is dated April 2020. Then the pandemic hits. We all know what happened there.
If you added a new chapter to this book now, what would it cover? What happened over this pandemic year that perhaps you were not quite prepared for, and how did it affect the people you work with?
You know, the pandemic just hit so hard and so fast. First of all, we were able to do telehealth for all of our counselors and mentoring. But we had 16 formerly-homeless youth living with us, 10 more in a warming shelter around the corner, and our drop-in center. We just couldn't say to them, "Oh, you have to go."
So I said to our staff, if you are too afraid to come into work because you might get sick, don't come in. We'll still pay you. We won't even ask you to take a health day. And not one person, Mitch, took me up on that. Everybody still continued to come into work. But our staff were just so wonderful, and they hung in there.
When the pandemic first started, nobody had masks or PPE, we didn't know how it was transmitted. And I went in that first night to our shelter, and I saw a worker, and two kids had symptoms. And I kept saying to her, "How are you? Are you okay?" And all she was worried about was one young man, who already had high anxiety disorder, and he had symptoms, and she was worried about him. And it's funny, she just left us after four years. And I said to her, that said so much to me that night. I kept asking you about you, and how you're feeling, and all you were worried about was that young man. So, that really speaks a lot about the people we have at Spectrum, and the kind of care and compassion they have in the work that they do.
"It takes perseverance. It takes resilience. It takes grit. It takes courage. And you know what else it takes? ... Other people willing to step out of their comfort zone, to step out of their bubble, with acts of compassion and care. And when you have those two elements coming together at once, that's really when some amazing, miraculous things happen."
Mark, you've shared your stories on the Broadway stage. You've been telling stories at The Moth storytelling project in Burlington, people are really familiar with your work there. Now, this memoir comes out. What is the big story that you're trying to tell with this memoir? What do you hope people take away from the book?
I ended my show on Broadway, and the one I did at the The Flynn, and I quoted it at the end of the book. I think the message I want people to get is that people can recover from their wounds. People can recover from their trauma. People can overcome their addictions. But it just doesn't happen by accident.
It takes perseverance. It takes resilience. It takes grit. It takes courage. And you know what else it takes, Mitch? When other people are willing to step out of their comfort zone, to step out of their bubble, in acts of compassion and care.
And when you have those two elements coming together at once, that's really when some amazing, miraculous things happen. I think that is the main message of the book.
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