Tough-minded yet tender-hearted, Charley Joyce possessed the ideal constitution to become a mental health care provider.
In fact, the recently retired founder of LSSND’s Abound Counseling has displayed that fortuitous fusion of grit and compassion throughout his life.
He served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, then returned home to gently and compassionately counsel vulnerable children, traumatized by past neglect or abuse. His military training has made him a man of discipline and organization, yet he structured Abound so therapists could operate as independent contractors and without a lot of fussy bureaucracy. He has a lively sense of humor, a likable demeanor and a ready grin, yet he admits to possessing a bulldog’s persistence when defending a principle or pursuing a goal.
All of these traits have served Charley well in a diverse, 45-year-career that has encompassed being clinical director of a psychiatric facility, outpatient therapist, supervisor of outpatient therapists, foster-care caseworker, clinical director of foster-care services and owner of his private practice.
He has written several online courses through FosterParentCollege.com, taught college courses and presented trainings on many child-welfare topics. This spring, he released the second edition of a well-regarded book, Behavior with a Purpose: Thoughtful Solutions to Common Problems of Adoptive, Foster and Kinship Youth, which has become an important resource for foster parents, child-welfare professionals, mental-health providers and academics alike.
All this, yet Charley remains modest and self-effacing about his accomplishments. Becky Kopp-Dunham, LICSW, worked with Charley at two different agencies before Abound, and said he has an "astounding amount of knowledge" about foster-care, which he has generously shared with professionals and families far outside of North Dakota's borders. "Charley means so much to me," she says. "I don't know how to convey that concisely, on top of all the impact he's had as a therapist, a colleague, an author and a mentor."
That latter role, as mentor, is one for which Kopp-Dunham is especially grateful.
"He has consistently been that bright light and encouraging voice," she says. "He recognizes the greatness in other people and tells them so. He’s not at all worried about his light being diminished by focusing on other people’s gifts."
Kopp-Dunham credits Charley, along with LSS Clinical Director Sara Stallman, with playing a crucial role in encouraging her to open her own practice at Abound – a decision she says has given her the career she always wanted. "It changed the trajectory of my world professionally. I didn’t know that work life could be this good and I could be balancing parenting and work. This is just the best life."
Recently, we checked in with Charley from his lake cabin in Minnesota to visit about his career journey and what he’s learned along the way. Predictably, he was filled with entertaining stories (he attributes his storytelling gene to his Irish heritage), a wise perspective and many keen insights.
What attracted you to counseling/social work as a profession?
I’m a child of the ’60s, so we were surrounded by huge issues such as civil rights and the war on poverty. When I did get to college (after serving in the Marines), social work was a real interest of mine. I had started out in political science, but learned I really had no connection to those types of issues. I had a friend in social work who really helped bring me into that. It was not only a study of mental health, but also how environmental factors impact mental health.
Also, my mom influenced me. My dad died unexpectedly when I was 6. My mom was a real positive force in my life. She was very determined, fair-minded and had a really kind heart – even though we weren’t always aware of it at the time. Her name was Grace, which really fit her as she had a lot of grace.
You mentioned working for VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) right out of college. What did you do with that organization?
Today, people have forgotten what VISTA is, but during the original war on poverty, it was like a domestic Peace Corps. One of VISTA’s principles was you had to live at or below the poverty level of the people you were serving, so we received $1.01 an hour and $50 a month in food stamps.
I thought we would be sent somewhere like Appalachia, but instead I ended up at United Tribes, just 100 miles from my hometown. It could have been 1,000 miles. At that time especially, the Native and non-Native communities were very, very separate communities. I had a tremendous experience at United Tribes. It really helped you understand as a non-Native person the Native perspective on life.
It pushed me to have more of a view of poverty as more than a stand-alone issue. This impacts mental health, it impacts everything. It’s pretty hard to be a happy guy if there’s not enough to eat. I came out of that experience really wanting to help families experiencing those difficulties.
What advice would you give to new people just entering this profession?
You have entered a tremendous profession, but you will witness very difficult and tragic pieces of the human condition, so learn how to handle that emotional stress within your own psychology, or you will become a casualty of the profession.
Who were your most significant mentors along the way?
Dr. Bruce Foster. I worked with him post-graduate school at Badlands Human Service Center in Dickinson. He really helped me develop professionally and he also gave me an environmental approach. I miss Bruce, as he has passed on.
One of my business mentors was one of the crabbiest CPAs I ever met. I did my business plan with him via SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and he just grilled me on my business plan. At the end, he took off his glasses and looked at me and said, “If you treat people with respect and you work hard, and you are good at what you do, it should work.” It was just the push I needed to go on my own.
The other person who has always supported me is my wife, Gretchen. Although I never burned out on client contact, I was so done with organizations. I came to her one day and said, ‘I’m 50 years old. What about me going to zero income and zero benefits while I try to go out on my own?” She didn’t hesitate. She said, ‘I have no doubt you’ll be successful.”
How has counseling/mental health treatment changed from when you first started in the field?
One of the things people don’t give enough credit to is medication advances. There are medications now that we just didn’t have. In 1975, when I first started practicing, people were being institutionalized that wouldn’t have to be now.
Also, the use of evidence-based practices. The approach of looking at what we do and asking: What are we doing, does it work and researching the outcomes.
The expansion of insurance coverage for mental-health care also needs to be recognized. It validates mental health as a health condition.
The stigma really has improved. If someone has post-partum depression nowadays, we don’t look at them as morally deficient. We don’t look at kids with ADHD as uncontrollable naughty kids.
What has been the common theme that you learned from your work?
Our life experiences definitely impact us, but we don’t need to be stuck in our life experiences. We do have an element of control over our lives.
What have been the highlights of your career?
I’ve had several.
Setting up my own business 16 years ago and being successful at that. It proved to me
that you could be a successful businessperson and mental health professional; they weren’t mutually exclusive.
Abound and its business model being embraced by LSS. When I started Abound, I made it very clear I didn’t want to be an employee. I told the CEO at the time (Jessica Thomasson), I don’t need to be told how to set up business, but I’ll maximize your profits by not doing anything that didn’t generate income, while providing quality services. Jess said: ‘I don’t know anything about that model, but it sounds good to me.’”
What I learned at VISTA. I got to start my career on a professional highlight. That whole VISTA experience was just wonderful.
How do you plan to spend your retirement?
Not setting the alarm clock, I love that. I love to fish, but not as much as just hiking and biking out in the wilderness. Helping with the grandkids is great. Then I’d like to get back to Ireland, with Lindsey and Heather (the Joyces’ daughters) and take them to Connemara, which is where my family came from.
Beatles or Stones? :)
Hands down, Beatles. I have actually asked my Beatles playlist will be played at my funeral so people can rock on and experience it like I did.
By Tammy Swift