Candace Albritton is a deeply spiritual person with a big singing voice steeped in traditional gospel. As a residential counselor at the Youth Villages Deer Valley Campus in Linden, Tennessee, she makes singing part of her everyday work with the boys in her program, fusing fun and therapy.
Candace moved to Tennessee in October 2014 from her home state of Florida specifically to work with young people at Deer Valley and to pursue her licensure as a mental health counselor, which staff can pursue at Youth Villages for free while working their regular jobs.
However, she says adjusting to her new surroundings took time. From the start, she immersed herself in working with the boys, building trusting relationships with them, helping them change their perspectives on their lives and doing anything she can to help them succeed. Most of the boys Candace works with are between the ages of 13 and 17. Many of them have histories of trauma along with emotional and behavioral issues. Candace naturally enjoys connecting older children with community resources for when they leave the campus and helps others get ready to join Job Corps or other programs once they leave home.
When she finds it hard to connect to a youth, she employs her “work buddy” Tucker the Turtle, a snuggly stuffed-toy version of a turtle, to help her get boys out of their shells and open up about their feelings. Candace has a host of “work buddies” to help her relate to the boys and build trust. More than anything, Candace enjoys being a safe person to the boys who helps build them up and gives them the security they need to talk about those things they may have never shared with anyone before.
Candace also mentors a youth who has left Deer Valley but continues to write and call Candace for her nurturing support.
A talented singer who grew up singing in her dad’s church, Candace truly found a new home in Tennessee when she auditioned and was selected for the renowned Tennessee Mass Choir. The choir has sung with Al Green and recently shared a stage with Foreigner, among others. Candace spends three Saturdays a month in Memphis for rehearsals and goes on the road with the choir for concerts.
Candace shares her passion for music with the boys she works with, breaking into song or rap whenever they have the chance.
“We’ll sing anything,” Candace says. “From ‘Mary had a little lamb’ to rap songs. The kids all love Eminem, so we sing some of his songs.”
Candace, who listens to gospel and Jill Scott at home, had to seek out Eminem songs to become familiar with the singer and his repertoire.
“I’d go home and look up his songs, and I discovered they’re good and I like them,” she says. “He’s good at story telling and talks about overcoming struggles, so that’s something our boys relate to.”
Through songs, the boys also relate to Candace and one another.
“We sing every day we’re together,” she says. “Before or after group, during free time – any time.”
Most of the boys on campus name music as a favorite coping skill. When they’re upset or sad, they turn to music to help calm their emotions, lighten their mood or reflect on their feelings.
Candace says her goal is to help all the Deer Valley youth she works with to become “a bright ray of sunshine or color and a unique someone” by the time they leave campus.
For many of the boys, Candace is the ray of light that helps them find hope and allows them to shine again.