On the occasion of her retirement we spoke to beloved Pleasantville Cottage Campus veteran Liticia McKnight about her career and the inspiration behind it.

What led you to working with youth and to JCCA?

I’ve been in the field pretty much my whole career. Right away I found that I liked it. In fact, I loved it. My background isn’t so different to that of many of the kids on campus. I was raised by my grandmother. She was instrumental in shaping me. I suppose I carry out that legacy in helping to shape others, many of whom are separated from parents.

As for JCCA, I started on the campus in 2009 and my last day will be next month. This has been a rewarding career. I’m leaving knowing I helped people.

What about this often difficult job spoke to you?

Having the ability to help someone change their course and gain a new perspective. The reward for me is that by the end the young person really gets it. It takes patience and time. These kids have been through a lot, and because of that they can be guarded, more focused on masking their pain than growing. It’s our job to meet them where they are, and it’s their job just to try. And if it doesn’t work out today, try again tomorrow.

I hear from former residents all the time. They call to let me know they’re doing something they’re proud of. They’re getting a job, they’re going to college, they’ve found their way. It makes me feel so good.

How do you approach to developing connection and trust?

These youth come to us with a lot of losses. They’ve been moved away from home. They’ve lost their school, their neighborhood. They’re surrounded by people they don’t know in an unfamiliar setting. And they’re carrying trauma. Who in that situation could come in ready to trust, ready to do uncomfortable work?

You approach each kid from the angle that works for them. I had a young women who was very bright, but withdrawn, awkward, almost silent. The trick to bringing her out of her shell turned out to be basketball. We’d shoot hoops, work on her skills, but along the way we talked. We spoke about what her life looked like before coming to JCCA, what it might look like when she eventually moved on. Today that young women is a well-adjusted adult who works for JCCA, helping to stabilize kids in crisis.

What are some of your best memories?

The volunteer program is very close to my heart. They’ve supported us to no end. My cottage was renamed the Stephanie J. Spiegel Cottage for our wonderful volunteer and current JCCA President. We’ve had so many special Christmases. I’d wake up very early and decorate every inch of the cottage. There’d be heaps of wrapped gifts surrounding multiple trees. To watch the kids come down the stairs was the best feeling in the world. They’d never experienced anything like it. The volunteers would come and make pancakes with us. We’d spend the whole day together.

How would you pitch someone considering a career in human services?

You have the chance to help someone grow, to move someone forward. A kid may be in a crisis. We remember the crisis, the poor behavior, the harsh words. But the kid remembers the person who stepped in to deescalate, the person who was there to listen to them. I’m proud to say that in terms of attention and care, the kids under my supervision have gotten the best.