Deidre Graham ’08, a juvenile justice specialist with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, walks a fine line between counselor and disciplinarian—a difficult task given the mental condition of the youngsters in her unit at the Illinois Youth Center-St. Charles.

The center is one of the largest in Illinois for juvenile justice. It is a medium security facility housing approximately 320 juvenile males. Youths assigned to the facility range from low to high risk of escaping, and have committed all classes of crime.

Beyond correcting the behavior that led to their run-ins with the law, some inmates have special needs that have to be addressed.

“Children in the special treatment unit have mental issues ranging from depression to bipolar disorder and ADHD,” Graham said. “They need someone to talk to. If you’re not a patient person and willing to talk with them, then working that unit is not for you.”

Graham is known as “Mama Graham” at the facility, where she works to help the young men face their future with hope. Just five years older than some of the kids, she keeps a tight schedule as she gets her unit to classes, meals, and counseling sessions while keeping the peace.

“For the most part any unit I work with doesn’t give me problems. The kids respect me,” Graham said. “But it depends on the day the kids are having. Some days they don’t care what you have to say.”

Difficulty in school, an emotional counseling session, or bad news from home can all make for a tough day. Graham stays sensitive to the events in her kids’ lives. When they act out she knows why, and can cut to the problem’s core. It’s this sensitivity that has her eager to become a full counselor.

“Kids unleash a lot on you even in the role I’m in, and it hurts your soul,” she said. “But I have always been a people person, and I like helping people.”