Head counselor Vivian Dirks retires after decades of work with teens
By RACHEL COLEMAN
Liberal High School students headed out the doors Tuesday and Wednesday, ready for summer to begin.
Head counselor Vivian Dirks won’t be far behind.
After more than 18 years on the job at USD No. 480, Dirks will retire in June and enjoy her first work-free summer in “I don’t know how many years,” she said.
Though her job as a guidance, academic and drug-and-alcohol abuse counselor demanded she put in countless extra hours, Dirks said, “It’s been fun. USD 480 is an awesome place to work. I’ve had the privilege of working with such good superintendents and principals over the years.”
Dirks came to work at South Middle School in 1990; her first position was classroom instruction of students with behavioral disorders. A few years later, she went back to college to earn a master’s degree in drug-and alcohol counseling.
“I could see it was needed,” she said. “So many of the kids I worked with had alcohol-related issues, either personally or because of their family situations.”
Dirks said she’s been able to relate to even the most complicated family stories because “I haven’t lived in a little golden shell all my life. I relate to parents; I don’t judge them.”
Alcohol-related problems have a personal resonance for Dirks. Her 9-year-old son died after a drunk driver crashed into the vehicle that was taking him to a 4-H meeting. His two sisters were seriously injured as well. In the aftermath of grief and a divorce, Dirks said, “my life just kind of fell apart.”
Two years later, she began to find a way to put things in order. She returned to college to complete the degree she’d set aside years before.
“Here’s how it was: what saved my life was going back to school,” she said. “As I continued, the Lord became more important to me. Later, I could see that God has had his hand on my life.”
Dirks’ work as a counselor has been a redemptive process that braided those three elements of her own life into a strong sense of purpose and compassion. Her desire to work with young men and women who struggle with alcohol and drug issues grew out of a personal choice to forgive and live:
“I was either going to be angry at them, or help them,” she said.
Her goal to encourage them to finish college and make the most of their lives was grounded in the experience of going back to school after years as a housewife and mother.
And her commitment to an often painful, messy process of therapy for kids with issues was grounded in her Christian convictions, which found an outlet long after the last school bell rang.
“I just feel like God led me to the right work,” she said. “Several years back, I was working with a student who’d left the gangs. His parents went home to Mexico for Christmas and left him home — nobody there, no food, nothing. I took him home to eastern Kansas for Christmas thinking ‘this might be a real shocker for my family, and my little hometown where there’s no multicultural anything,’ but it was OK. That was when he asked me if I would help him learn to study the Bible,” she recalled.
Dirks said she had a strong sense of God speaking to her: “It was like he said, ‘Vivian, I have your son with me. There are more boys out there that need you now,’” she said.
Soon, the evening Bible study numbered 25, local churches volunteered to provide meals, and Dirks saw changes in the young peoples’ lives.
“One evening, we finished eating and one of the kids said, ‘Gee, Miss Dirks, this is just like a family. We eat together, we study together, we pray together,’” she said. “It was a blessing to me, too. My girls had just gotten married, and I had all this extra time. I think I got as much out of it as the kids did.”
In recent years, Dirks’ job shifted to more administrative and academic work. Still, she stays in touch with the students she’s gotten to know over the years.
“One of those boys goes into the prisons in Juarez, Mexico, and has a ministry there,” she said. “I hear from a lot of them, and that’s always good.”
As June 9 approaches, Dirks has mixed feelings about leaving the district.
“I will miss it so much. I will miss the kids, and Mr. Adams, and the other faculty and staff,” she said. “I’ve loved my work here. USD 480 gave me a chance to make a difference, and that meant so much to me, coming in as a parent who went back to college and felt she had no special gifts.”
With programs like Capturing Kids’ Hearts, Literacy First and AVID going strong, and more Advanced Placement, pre-college classes added to the high school each year, Dirks said she knows good things are ahead for the students. It’s hard for her to picture not being a part of that.
“There are a lot of positive, progressive things. I’d love to be around to see what goes on,” she said. “Now, I’ll be doing it as part of the cheering section.”
The rest of the time, Dirks anticipates renewing interests she’s had to set aside over the years.
“Music is my life. That was what I majored in, all the way back when I started college,” she said. “I want to continue with that. I’ll be involved at my church. I want to garden and quilt and spend time with my grandchildren.” Dirks has one grandaughter and four grandsons “who are very active in basketball, wrestling, baseball and football. Now I will be able to attend all games,” she said.
First, though, Dirks said she’s going to clean and organize her house.
With more room for domestic pursuits and the possibility of instructing a 4H sewing class — this time for her granddaughter — Dirks’ life has nearly come full circle.
“I’m just ready to move into a new season,” she said. “It will be exciting to see what’s next.”