Counselor Spotlight: Garland Willis

By Rebecca Smith

Next Step counselor Garland Willis recalled what made him go from being a high school principal to a counselor a few years ago.

“Being a principal is where all my white hair came from,” he said with a laugh. “As a principal, my most enjoyable days were working with people, trying to help them fix their problems. For example, how would I help a student with unreliable parents get to school? How would I help a teacher whose husband had kicked her out of the house? I enjoyed trying to help them. My wife finally said ‘Garland, all the stuff that’s not academic, you seem to have a great time with.’ I liked being a principal, but I figured out I like helping people better in a different way. As principal I was the guy who had to discipline and be the bad guy. People wouldn’t open up to me because they were afraid to get in trouble. When I’m a counselor, I get to be the good guy 99% of the time.”

Garland has been with Next Step since March of 2020 — right before schools shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he has been seeing clients virtually.

Next Step places counselors on school campuses, where an estimated 20% of the student body needs services. With juvenile probation, that number jumps to 60%.

“I know for a fact that people who appear hopeless can be helped, as long as they want to change,” he said.

Garland recalled one 11th grade student he saw while he was still earning his LPC credentials. The student was having issues after his father had abandoned the family.

“He couldn’t rectify how he could love his dad, even though he didn’t like or respect his dad,” Garland said. His mind was really having trouble coming together on that. He was terrified that because his dad was a bad guy, that meant he would be a bad guy, too.”

Garland saw the student for about 10 months, he said.

“He finally started to realize it was OK to not like his dad and still love his dad, and it was possible for him to be a good guy even though his dad wasn’t. When he finally recognized that and understood that, his eyes just brightened up. He said ‘It’s OK to love my dad. Just because my dad isn’t a good guy doesn’t mean I’m not a good guy. I’m a good guy because I do good things.’ And then he fell in the floor and started bawling uncontrollably.”

The student’s whole demeanor changed, Garland said. He carried himself with more confidence, he did better with his other relationships, and his grades improved.

“I wish people knew everyone can be helped by counseling, even people who may not even know they have a problem,” Garland said. “I think everyone has problems. Some people are better able to work through them or ignore them. Even people like that, when they go to counseling, they feel better. Sometimes they don’t even realize something is holding them back. They have the nice car, the nice house, the nice people they enjoy being around, but they can still benefit.”

Garland is excited to start working with students in-person when the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.

“I love working with adolescents,” he said. “I love feeling like I can benefit them. I am excited to get an avenue to help more kids. Being able to have a small part in that makes me feel good.”