Counselor Spotlight: Don Neal

By Rebecca Smith

Working with children can make a Next Step counselor feel like a superstar.

“I hear a lot from the elementary school especially that the kids enjoy coming to see me,” said Next Step counselor Don Neal. “There was one time I was sick and not there that day, then when I came back the office staff was fussing at me because they had kids coming all day long asking where I was and if I was coming, asking when were they going to get to come in. The staff kept saying ‘He’s sick he’s not coming,’ but it was like the kids didn’t believe them! They just kept checking to see if I had shown up.”

Don Neal is one of 17 counselors in Next Step’s program that puts licensed behavioral health counselors in schools and juvenile probation offices for a much lower cost than the organizations would be able to hire a counselor themselves. Don sees students at an elementary school, two juvenile probation offices and two high schools. The services are free to the students.

According to Next Step’s website, about 1 in 5 students in public schools need behavioral health counseling. The counselor-to-student ratio for a counselor hired by the schools can be as high as 500 students per counselor, and those counselors often get pulled away for scheduling and academics. In Juvenile Probation, estimates are that more than 60% of students need counseling.

“Being a parent of teenagers myself, I understand that so many kids are dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Don said. “It’s a real thing. Everything from bullying to social pressures about body image or questions about sexuality or drug use, kids have a lot of questions and they need a lot of help that they are not getting. They really have to know where to go find it, and they don’t know where to go. They might not feel safe going to the places that are obvious like their parents or school counselors. This program adds that level of confidentiality, which helps kids be able to deal with what they want to.”

Don received his counseling credentials from UT Tyler in 2018. Before that, he spent 11 years in education, but said being a counselor was always something he had thought about doing.

“Kids are fun to talk to,” Don said. “They’re discovering things, they are growing and learning, and understanding new things all the time. It’s really fascinating and fun to tackle so many different concerns teens have.”

Don has been with Next Step since October, but quickly went from seeing students two days a week to four.

“I like the variety that comes from working with Next Step,” he said. “I go from Corsicana to Kilgore, and I enjoy seeing the probation officers, teachers, and counselors as well as the students. I enjoy being a part of the community like that.”

Don said he’s seen a difference in event the toughest cases. He recalled one student at juvenile probation who refused to even speak to him for the first few sessions.

“He went from not being able to talk to exploring what It would be like for him to go to college. It’s still a work in progress, but we’ve come a long way.”

Don said he likes to use person-centered therapy where “the basic principle is the client has all the answers, they just might need to talk for a while to realize what that is.” He also uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, depending on the situation.

“I really think there’s something in it for everyone,” he said. “It’s good for kids and adults. You don’t have to have a ‘problem’ to go to counseling. In fact, I have some kids who I see at the high schools who are 18 and able to sign their own consent forms. I am pretty sure they got together and dared each other to do it. They all talk about each other, so I know they’re friends. Some have uncovered some significant issues, others are just having fun and discovering what it’s like to just talk about themselves and explore their personality. What I feel like started as an experiment for some of these kids has turned out really good for them.”