BRATTLEBORO—It’s the end of the school day at Brattleboro Union High School. The halls are quiet. A few teachers compare notes from the day. Students wait in the lobby for rides; a few talk about the weekend, while others are quiet, their heads bent over cell phones.
In Ricky Davidson’s new office, the sun-faded corkboard over his desk shows the shapes of the previous tenant’s papers: a heart-shape document here, a few small squares in the corner.
Davidson sits comfortably in his office chair — almost as if he moved in months ago. But it has been only three weeks since he left as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro to become the high school’s new student assistance program counselor (SAPC).
The position is part of the high school’s counseling department.
“I really see myself as trying to make [school] as successful as possible for as many kids as possible,” he said.
In his new role, Davidson serves as the go-to person on substance issues and prevention in the high school.
Students with a substance abuse issue — or who have a close family member with one — are referred to him by teachers, counselors, their parents, or a schoolmate.
Davidson also provides education to teachers and parents, and he helps with some of the high school’s health classes. He is one of the advisors to a student-led prevention group.
He enjoys connecting directly with young people every day — something he found missing after he stepped into the top job at the Boys & Girls Club in 2016.
In his role as executive director there, he found the buck stopped at his desk, making some problems his, and his alone, to solve.
But at BUHS, Davidson is part of a larger team, a structure that he said he appreciates.
“There’s little teams within the school, but also the school as a whole is a team,” he said.
Substance misuse — and trauma
Davidson aims to help the students be as successful as possible, however individual students define “success.”
“Every kid has slightly different needs, and I might be part of the thing that makes [school] successful for them,” he said. “If I can do that, that’s great.”
Davidson takes his role as educator around substance issues very seriously — issues about which he says kids receive mixed messages.
For example, he said, as the laws around marijuana have changed in Vermont, he has heard more kids interpret these changes as meaning that marijuana has stopped being a potentially unhealthy substance.
He challenges that proposition.
“We don’t know all the stuff it does to a young person’s developing brain, and I think it is important for them to hear that,” he said.
So many of the community’s young people have or are dealing with trauma-related issues that might also have a substance-misuse component, he added. Davidson believes the current generation needs far more support for such issues than previous generations have needed.
“And I’m not saying that other generations didn’t have trauma-related things, that they didn’t have substance abuse-related things... but I think that it’s piled on in a different way than it ever has been,” he said.
Social media and the instant access to information that students have access to through the internet — information that is sometimes of dubious quality — plays a role in “piling it on,” Davidson said.
“So a lot of it is about being accurate for them, and with them.”
Davidson added that the school district has invested resources and time into becoming trauma-informed, which means that “the adults in the school community are prepared to recognize and respond to those who have been impacted by traumatic stress,” according to the Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, an agency that provides resources for educators.
Society understands how trauma effects a person’s life in a deeper way than it did a few generations ago, Davidson said.
Studies have shown that traumatic experiences — often referred to as ACES (adverse childhood experiences) — in childhood can create an impact on a person’s health and behaviors as an adult.
Davidson believes that in the long run, the emphasis on trauma-informed care can end the harmful effects of trauma on students and their families.
‘Some things are worth the wait’
Davidson’s transition from the Boys & Girls Club to BUHS has been smooth so far.
“It’s been really good — everybody here has been super welcoming, which makes it easy,” he said. “Also, I know so many of the kids and so many of the faculty and staff, so that was a pretty seamless transition there.”
BUHS Principal Steve Perrin has known Davidson for many years through the Boys & Girls Club and from his service on the BUHS school board.
Perrin was also part of the team that hired Davidson as the high school’s new SAPC after two application rounds.
“He’s proof some things are worth the wait,” the principal said.
Davidson stood out from the other candidates because of his extensive experience with kids, said Perrin, who believes that his new hire has the ability to motivate kids but also hold them to account whenever necessary.
Even though Davidson has served as the new SAPC for only a few weeks, he has helped improve staff’s understanding of substance issues, Perrin said.
Every week, Davidson sends out articles or other pieces of information to staff, he said. In the coming year, the school hopes to work with him to broaden that distribution to provide additional information to parents as well.
“He always has a really positive outlook,” Perrin said.
Perrin remembers Davidson bringing a perspective on what kids need to the school board — a perspective that no other members, even those who had kids of their own, could provide.
At the Boys & Girls Club, Davidson saw kids “at their best and their worst,” Perrin said.
Davidson joked that he also had a long Thanksgiving weekend and an extra snow day to adapt to his new job.
One of the first things he did over the long weekend? He once again dyed his hair a fun color — a signature look he scrapped when he began working as an executive director.
Deciding to change
Davidson worked at the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro in both part-time and full-time jobs for a little more than 15 years. He served as the executive director for a little more than three years.
The Club’s staff members are good people doing really good work, he said, and its mission is important, giving many kids in the area opportunities and community they often can’t get elsewhere.
But as much as he respects the organization and his co-workers, he decided the time had come to leave.
“The longer I spent being the executive director at the club — which was a phenomenal experience — the less time I spent with kids, and the less time I spent with kids, the more I realized that it wasn’t filling me up,” Davidson said.
“I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do,” he added.
The executive director job meant Davidson spent most of his time making phone calls, responding to emails, and sitting in an office.
So he went looking for a job that would put him back in daily contact with kids.
Davidson was also looking for a better work-life balance. He knew that as much as he loved the Club, he felt he would never achieve that goal.
“People used to joke that I was going to die there and they’d just put my ashes in an urn and put it on a shelf and be like, ‘That’s where Ricky is,’” he said.
Now that he’s left the Boys & Girls Club, he admitted he misses working with the elementary-school-aged students.
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said with a smile.
The bigger issues behind choices
Some of the issues Davidson sees kids working through include concerns around substances, particularly vaping.
“I think that any time a young person is going to take something to alter their brain chemistry for whatever reason, that’s a concern to me,” Davidson said.
One constant in his long career working with kids: engaging with the bigger issues behind young people as they are faced with these choices.
Adults need to remember that they might not think their kids are watching them ingest alcohol, tobacco, or other substances.
But they are watching, Davidson said.
“Kids are going to do what you did and not what you said not to do,” he said. “They’re looking to you on how to behave, and how to react, and how to interact.”
Every adult in a kid’s life sends a message, and adults need to remain aware that they are doing so, he warned. Parents won’t get it right every day, but being constant and honest are key to supporting and guiding young people, he said.
“Being willing to share your mistakes is a huge teaching tool for kids,” he said.
Davidson said that when he would host new staff orientation at the Boys & Girls Club, he would say, “The biggest skill you need to have to work with kids is to remember what it felt like to be 8, or 13, or 17.”
Yes, he added, the challenges kids faced then are different from those kids face today — but the kids are still kids.
“And most of us at some point or another — especially in our teen years — were not okay,” he said. “A lot of the issues I deal with here at the high school, we dealt with at the club, too.”
Davidson sees his new role at BUHS as helping the whole family by serving as a resource for kids and their parents. Families, nonprofits, and schools can’t raise kids alone — the whole community needs to show up, he said.
Glimmers of hope
Davidson said as a high school student, he thought he would go to art school. He changed his mind, however, when he realized he wanted to make a more substantial mark on the world.
He said he chose to work with kids because as a kid himself, there were times he needed adults to step up.
“I always have approached this [work] as wanting to be the adult that I needed to have in my life and wished was there,” he said.
This doesn’t mean the adults who supported him were always his best friends.
“They would hug you one moment because that’s what you needed, and then kick you in the butt the next moment, because that’s what you needed,” he said. “And I think when I realized that I wanted to help people, that’s when [working with kids] came to me.”
Davidson said he keeps coming back to working with kids because he admires their resilience.
“I’ve never looked at a kid and not seen a glimmer of hope,” he said.