Deborah Reese Drake-Gordon reads in her office space where she conducts therapy sessions as an intern at Wellness and Courage in Fayetteville. The 69-year-old, who is making a late-in-life career change, plans to start practicing fully at the end of the fall semester.

Although she finished her studies and started a career 40 years ago, a former school counselor recently returned to school and is beginning a new chapter after deciding it is never too late to pursue one’s dreams.

Deborah Reese Drake-Gordon, 69, graduated from Arkansas Tech University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and social studies before earning her master’s in secondary guidance and counseling from Henderson State University in 1981. Gordon has worked in education for 40 years and was a counselor at Elkins Middle School in Washington County, for 12 years before deciding to switch to a career in mental health therapy.

To complete the requirements necessary to receive her therapy certification, Gordon took night classes at the UofA for three years and is currently doing her mandatory internship hours at Wellness and Courage, a professional counseling office.

Gordon said it was rejuvenating to revisit and augment information she studied when she was first a student in order to be the best at her job. Gordon, who has been working at the internship since June, will be ready to practice at the end of the semester.

Gordon has always had an interest in mental health care and helping people, she said.

“I think mental health is most important and realizing that there’s difficulties sometimes in all of our lives,” Gordon said. “It helps to have somebody to talk to that you can trust.”

One of Gordon’s previous professors, Blair Olsen, taught counselor education in 1981 at Henderson State. Gordon has always been young at heart and Olsen thinks her love for children has guided her to develop the necessary skills for a career in mental health therapy, he said.

“Deborah won (kids) over,” Olsen said. “She’s their advocate, as long as you listen to them and validate them, she helps them work out their plans for their future.”

Gordon’s transition from school counselor to therapist-in-training was smooth because the two fields are very similar, Gordon said. However, a school counselor tends to work with larger groups, while a mental health therapist usually works one-on-one with clients, she said.

Gordon thinks she will serve clients better in a private practice, she said. Gordon helped resolve conflicts, guide students struggling with academics and advocate for drug education programs as a school counselor, but she looks forward to working with people in a more private, personal setting.

“I was a middle school counselor and there is a huge gap between the elderly and middle school age and I just felt a fresh start needed to happen for our kids,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s supervisor Wendy Poole, the CEO and co-owner of Wellness and Courage, is excited Gordon is on her team, she said. Gordon is the company’s first intern, and Poole chose her because of her age, background and previous experience, Poole said.

Gordon sees around 15-20 patients a week, Poole said. The patients she works with include those who do not have the correct insurance, have no insurance or those who have Medicare.

Gordon wants to live life to its fullest, even at her current stage of life, she said. Gordon wants to check off her bucket list and believes life’s journey should be purposeful.

”I think in our stage of being elderly, there’s challenges in every stage and what we want to do is live the best we can within every stage of our life and make the best of it,” Gordon said. “I firmly believe the sense of belonging and being a part of others’ (sense of belonging) encourages us and gives us energy to continue our life.”

Poole has known Gordon since 1998 where they worked at the same junior high, and Gordon told her she had a dream of becoming a therapist when she retired from working in schools, Poole said.

“That was years and years ago when she said that,” Poole said. “I think she’s a unicorn, I don't think very many people have that work ethic.”

Gordon thinks the reason her new career path has been successful so far is because it has been a lifelong goal of hers, she said.

”Even though I'm fat and sassy, I think my attitude has made me healthy,” Gordon said. “When people tell me I can't do something, look out, I'm gonna do it as long as it's good for me.”

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