Anthony Stukes’ wilderness journey has come to an end.
But what a journey it’s been.
Until recently director of the Weekend Alternative Program at the Diakon Wilderness Center, Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, Stukes began his affiliation with the center not as a staff member—but as a student.
That journey, which began in 1995, saw him eventually become a wilderness center staff member and then director, gaining several college degrees along the way and positioning him, now, to set off on a new course.
Oh, and by the way, helping nearly 6,000 youths in the process.
Anthony Stukes, right, during a Diakon Youth Services canoe trip
His journey, which began in 1995, included time spent at the center as a student and then the eventual transition to staff member and director, . In that time, , obtaining several college degrees and, now, setting off on a new course.
Oh, and helping nearly 6,000 youths in the process.
“I felt as if it was time to focus on my newly attained clinical skills and put those to use in a more intentional way,” Stukes says, referring to the master’s degree in social work he completed in 2017 and to his decision to leave the center.
“I’m looking for something through which I can improve larger-scale juvenile justice systems and programs. But I will always have that commitment of doing what is best for the kids.”
That vision of helping others has informed Stukes’ work since he became a Diakon Youth Services staff member. His background helped him to ground that mission.
“I realized how important it is for youths to have positive people they can look up to.”
“As a youth, I was getting into trouble because of family problems and peer choices,” he says today. “I had given up on the concept of education and school and found myself involved with the court systems.”
The then-16-year-old knew his next court appearance might lead to a less-than-appealing stay in a facility near his home in west Philadelphia. He asked his caseworker to find a placement that could really help him. “One of the conditions I demanded of the caseworker was to make sure it was a good placement; make sure it is safe, make sure they care,” he says.
While terrified that the Wilderness Center was located in the woods—a place he had never been—Stukes found his concerns quickly fading following his arrival at the wilderness center, where the weekend program is based.
“Although I was surrounded by people and an environment completely foreign to me, I realized none of what I had been doing up to that point was working. I needed somebody to teach me how to make my dreams a reality,” he says.
He found that guidance at the wilderness center, where he lived as a student in a former residential program. Following his successful graduation from the program, he returned to the center two years later as a staff member, while also beginning to focus on his education. He gained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees over the years as he directed the Weekend Alternative Program, typically working a Friday-through-Sunday schedule.
Now, he is teaching others, while also working to establish a private practice through which he can continue to help at-risk youths.
Looking back on his career with the Wilderness Center, Stukes says it wasn’t until he turned 24 that he started to understand the impact he had on youths.
“I was far enough removed at that point and had reached my own age of maturity,” he says. “That was when it started hitting home for me as a supporter, mentor and helper in the field, and I realized how important it is for youths to have positive people they can look up to.”
Wanting to improve his ability to help others, Stukes earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, at one point hoping to become a lawyer.
“I remember early on having all these dreams and then realizing I don’t want to help people once they have already made a mistake. I want to help people before they get to that point,” he says. “That is where my passion lies—making sure people have the knowledge that they have a choice.”
Although Stukes understands that the choice may not be a clear one for many youths because of educational or environmental barriers to success, a choice does exist.
“I know it does because I lived it firsthand. There are people who can show you the way, but you have to know how to find them, what to say to activate those resources,” he says. “That is what I have done the last 20 years with Diakon: Give youths the knowledge to know what systems, what resources are available to them.”
It has not always been an easy task, but it has been one of the most rewarding he could have had, he believes. “I choose to focus on the hope that it can be a productive future, a productive tomorrow for the kids,” he says.
“I am looking forward to a new chapter in my life, but continuing to fight the good fight. Just in a different way!”