Holy Ground: MA counselling student finds fulfillment working with high-risk youth

Posted: April 26, 2012

As Carlie Pagens followed her passion to work with young people, the doorway to her career opened up in some surprising ways.

Pagens, an MA marriage and family counselling student who works as a counsellor with high-risk youth in Moose Jaw, Sask., didn’t set out to be a counsellor.

When she initially began her college career in Vancouver, B.C., she thought she wanted to be a gym teacher. Her first year at Simon Fraser University (SFU) proved to be a difficult one.

“I didn’t grow up in a Christian home at all,” she explained. “I was 17 with my folks hours away and I was not very disciplined and a bunch of things happened that year. I partied really hard and got in a lot of trouble.”

Later that year her brother became a Christian.

“I went to his baptism and felt something stirring in me,” Pagens said. “One of my best friends in the dorms was a Christian as well.”

After attending church with her friend and spending time with other Christians, Pagens also became a Christian.

“I had quite the conversion experience,” she admitted. “I went from being quite the partier to trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ. I didn’t know how to study the Bible at all.”

A friend at the summer camp where Pagens worked told her about Briercrest. She decided to come for one year to strengthen her new-found faith. After that she planned to transfer back to SFU.

That was six years ago. Pagens ended up staying at Briercrest and graduated in 2010 with and AA in biblical studies and a BA in youth ministries.

Graduate school was not in her plans.

“There was a recession going on and no one was hiring youth pastors,” she said. “So I decided to start a master’s only until I found a job. That’s how I ended up in seminary.”

Even though seminary wasn’t her first choice, Pagens insists that she chose Briercrest because of the education it would provide.

“I chose Briercrest because I thought it was the best program,” she said. “I looked all over Canada and all over the States. I felt like it was one of the few programs that really taught us different perspectives and let us choose what we wanted. A lot of schools just pick one (theory) and that’s all they teach.”

A short time after enrolling in seminary, Pagens was hired on as an outreach worker with high-risk kids at Moose Jaw Mental Health. She knew she had found her niche.

“After the first few weeks, I knew that was it,” she exclaimed. “That’s what I was going to do.”

Pagens  works in a three-year youth pilot program at Mental Health and Addictions in Moose Jaw called Open Connections which is funded by Health Canada. It focuses on high-risk kids between the ages of 12-24.

“Originally when the program started it was prepared to be 40 kids,” she explained. “We currently serve 220.”

At the beginning of this year Pagens was hired as a clinician in the program. Currently she  splits her time between counselling at Open Connections and a local high school.

The counsellor says a high-risk youth assignment was perfect for her.

“I think I saw a lot of me there,” she explained. “I knew what it was like to party. I knew what it was like to be doing those things. There’s something about working with high-risk youth that’s so raw and so real. I walked in the first day and half the kids told me I was new and they weren’t going to talk to me and I loved it! It was a challenge and they were so real and honest. I’m a pretty blunt person. So to have an environment where that was really okay was really refreshing.”

The job carries its burdens as well.

“There’s a professional boundary that I understand, but it’s frustrating,” Pagens explained. “Sometimes you see some kids that are really cool kids who just have nowhere to live and you just want to take them all home. That’s really, really hard.”

Pagens asserts that her personal faith is often an anchor that keeps her grounded.

“That’s where I get my own hope from,” she said. “With these kids a lot of people don’t see (hope), but I’ve lived through it and found my hope. The difference for me is there’s never a hopeless situation because God is the God of the impossible, right? Kids are smart. They can tell when you have no hope or when you really believe in them and you have hope and you know that something can change.”

The seminary student feels privileged to learn about the lives of the young people she sees.

“I get to enter into a place with kids that they often have never entered with anyone else,” she said. “I have the privilege of entering into some really dark, scary places with these kids and walking along beside them and helping them find new meaning and find hope in dark places. I get to see kids who were so lost–six months later laughing and smiling and being leaders in some of our programs. That’s why I do what I do.”