You Should Meet: Wendy DeGeest

Wendy DeGeest works with two young boys in their Brainerd home. Most of her early childhood special education work is done in people's homes. Photo courtesy of Wendy DeGeest.

Wendy DeGeest once planned a life as an elementary school teacher.  Then she found the kids who really needed her and everything became clear.

It was the 1980s and Pine City, Minn., needed a special education teacher. Growing up in a family that struggled with mental illness, DeGeest knew something about the wayward ways of the human brain. A state waiver let her fill the job while she pursued an early childhood special education degree.

Working with the special needs kids of Pine City unlocked her “unknown passion,” she told me recently.

It led her to a special education teaching degree from St. Cloud State and eventually to Brainerd, her hometown. She’s part of her community’s outreach to children with special needs, where an assessment team visits a family, tests the child, and decides what services and care are appropriate.

She visits about four families a day. On the day I spoke with her, she worked with a boy who doesn’t talk even though he’s almost three, a set of twins, one who isn’t walking at one, one who has ADHD, and a four-year-old who is severely disabled, blind, and can’t roll over.

“Those are the toughest,” she says.

DeGeest is trying to find what sensory area in the girl is most appealing to her, and then use that to try to make progress. She has appeared to smile at music.

A love of music, theater, and the arts is something DeGeest got from her mother, a creative sort, who taught her to play the piano, and exposed DeGeest to a world of the gifted and talented.

She learned something else from her mother: What happens when the brain goes awry.

“She started to go crazy in her 30s. I was in the sixth grade. She thought people were after her in helicopters and boats. She’d sit on the couch and write down lists of clues proving it,” DeGeest said.

“It went on for years,” she says. “My brother and I would be eating our Froot Loops at the bottom of the staircase and the men in the white coats would come in and take her out in a straitjacket. We just sat there and one day I thought, ‘Wow, this doesn’t affect me anymore.’ Isn’t that crazy?”

Her father sought out a psychiatrist for his wife and she went to Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center for a year. “She was drugged with Thorazine,” DeGeest says. “It wasn’t a nice place for me to visit. It was full of the mentally ill who were all drugged. It was pretty scary with all the locked doors.” When Wendy visited, her mother would make her play piano for the people behind them.

Her brother’s mental illness –- paranoid schizophrenia — surfaced when he was 13. He lives in a group home now and works at Cragun’s Resort making beds. “His hallucinations are pretty well controlled now,” she says. “He’s a happy guy.” She’s his guardian and says whatever empathy she shows in her career, she learned from him.

“My childhood allows me now to handle anything. I’m very good at interpreting body language because it wouldn’t take much to set my mother off. She was very volatile and I learned how to act in an argument, how to be more passive.”

Brainerd is a good place to be if you need services, she says, but it’s experiencing the same problem the rest of the state is: It’s hard to find people like Wendy DeGeest.

Minnesota’s special education population has increased by 10 percent the past five years but  almost 10 percent of the state’s licensed special ed teachers quit during the most recent school year studied and the state is issuing comparatively few new licenses, the Star Tribune  reported recently.

Brainerd’s district is trying to hire two more special ed teachers to meet a rising demand. The city is growing, and so is the case load. She’s seeing increasing cases of autism – the “A word,” she calls it. There are also significant mental health issues in the community and the entire system is stressed.

“My students typically are on a long waiting list for a mental health evaluation because so few people are trained to evaluate a birth-to-age-three child,” she says. “Many of my students are just handed an evaluation and a diagnosis and then that’s where the services end.”

Some mental health workers in the area want out, she says, because the system doesn’t reward them fairly. A therapist friend, she says, doesn’t get paid if a client doesn’t show up for an appointment and it’s often hard for them to get out of bed, let alone keep an appointment.

In its editorial on the subject last month, the Star Tribune cited two areas in special education here that particularly need fixing: the mountain of paperwork teachers face, and the “unreasonably restrictive and expensive” education and credit criteria to become licensed.

Some forms DeGeest fills out for the state are 18 pages long.

“You just wouldn’t believe it,” she says. But she sees hope for the system, given that a task force is exploring ways to improve special education, the state just established “scholarships” to give low-income kids a better shot at early childhood education, and it’s decided to provide all-day kindergarten

DeGeest says more people should consider the special education side of things. It’s a highly specialized and expensive degree, she points out, but special ed teachers are in great demand. “I’ll never be looking for work,” she says. But her “hidden passion” isn’t about job security.

“To help a child with autism make eye contact and say their first words is a reward you don’t get with any other job,” she says.

She recalls the kids she first helped in Pine City. There was the four-year-old low-functioning girl who’d never said “mama” and couldn’t walk. DeGeest helped her take her first steps.

Another girl – DeGeest calls her the most memorable client she’s ever had — stopped talking when she reached 18 months old. “She didn’t say a word for three years,” she recalls, “and then one day we were doing picture cards and she suddenly started talking and naming 34 in a row – alligator, giraffe – like a typical four-year-old.

The healthy world has a way of writing off those with special needs, but anything is possible with enough help and enough empathy. The underlying philosophy in the Minnesota approach to early child special education is to get to the kids who need help as soon as possible.

Near the end of this school year, DeGeest watched one of her students – a second grader – stand with the rest of his class at a school concert. “He was on task. He was in place. He was smiling,” she said. “His mother was so proud.”

She didn’t notice whether he was actually singing. It didn’t matter.

Bonus: Read the MPR News package on the state of Minnesota’s mental health services.

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