A Career Defined by Public Service and Then a Lifelong Dream Awakened

By Dave DeFusco

When Erin Castleberry was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California (USC), she wanted to become a marriage and family therapist. She had always been interested in the way the brain works and the ways people interact with one another, how their biology affects relationships. She majored in interpersonal communications, with a minor in sociology.

But like many people that age, she discovered a passion for something else during the summer of her sophomore year. Congress had just passed President Clinton’s signature domestic program, AmeriCorps, which encouraged young people to get involved in public service. Because of her interest in social justice, she volunteered for a pilot program called Summer of Service and was assigned to work in the Pregnant Minors Program in Los Angeles County public schools.

The program matched volunteer mentors with inner-city teens to help them with conflict resolution, social skill development, applying to college and their homework.

“It was the awakening of a new dream,” said Castleberry, who was raised herself by a teen mom and is now enrolled in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling master’s program at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “I spent the next 15 years working with people and on issues that I cared about deeply on a broad scale affecting many lives.”

She said working with teen moms was a labor of love because she could see in them the same commitment and struggle of her own mom in raising her and her siblings. Their youth and inexperience, she said, did not have to mean a life of limited opportunities for their children.

“I knew there was strength in their choice to keep their children, and I also knew they were often scared of what the future held,” she said. “My personal example of a life of hard work was inspiring to some of the girls, and I was able to show them that anything was possible for their children, as well.”

Soon after that experience, she successfully competed for one of six national fellowships offered by AmeriCorps to create a program called Minors Opting for Motherhood (M.O.M.). The Los Angeles County Office of Education matched the $20,000 grant, and she modeled the program after Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The aim was to recruit college-age women to mentor the teen moms and help them apply for financial aid, obtain childcare and arrange for transportation to school.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was watching the girls make some of the mistakes she had lived through herself, and making sure they understood there were other choices available to them. She knew intuitively at that age the counselor’s professional obligation not to use the client to heal herself.

“The times when you need to step back and allow people to make mistakes so they can learn on their own can be the toughest,” she said.

To help the teens empower themselves, she developed a curriculum enabling them to create service-learning projects that included identifying community needs, developing action plans, getting funding, carrying them out and then measuring success.

“It was just a great experience,” she said. “It was really rewarding to be able to work with the next generation of girls who were raising kids. It was very inspiring because it was so personal.”

After she graduated from USC, Hands On Baltimore, a nonprofit volunteer placement agency and another AmeriCorps pilot program, recruited her to help revive its operations. The agency, a network of partnerships between 25 local nonprofits that recruits young professionals seeking to give back to the community, was struggling to stay afloat. She convinced big Baltimore developers to donate materials and supplies for service projects, and established public-private partnerships.

Her success at Hands On Baltimore attracted the attention of then-lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who made Castleberry a policy advisor and liaison to women’s groups on family issues, elder care and women and children’s issues. She represented the lieutenant governor at events, on boards and with the legislature.

“It was a crash course on how Maryland works,” she said. “I organized two national conferences in the name of doing good and public service, but it was far from what I originally intended to do.”

Her performance was so impressive that then-Governor Parris Glendening made her a cabinet secretary in charge of making appointments to boards, commissions and judicial seats. She held the post for nearly three years. At the end of his second term, Castleberry decided to start a family with her husband Will, and for the past 13 years she has raised twin sons and a daughter. Still, she stayed active in her community and in politics, serving on the board of Emerge Maryland which recruited women to run for office as Democrats.

“I believe that women can have it all,” she said. “It had always been my plan to stay home once I had children. It’s what I wanted as a child, and I wanted to give that gift to my kids. The truth is, no career goal was ever more important to me than having and raising a healthy, happy and peaceful family, and no job I ever had has been more fulfilling.”

When her husband asked her recently what she’d do if she could do anything, her immediate response was “become a counselor.”

“There was so much texture now to what I could bring to that profession that I never would have had as a 22-year-old,” she said. “So I started looking at program after program, but nothing felt right. Then a friend recommended the School of Education.”

She started the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program this spring and expects to graduate in 2018. She’s interested in writing about the effects of social media on mental health, social learning and evolutionary psychology. Currently she’s doing a literature review to determine the major research findings in these areas and their implications for the field of counseling and on parenting.

She said her advisor, Associate Professor Christy Harnett, has been “supportive, realistic and approachable.”

“She has so much experience,” said Castleberry. “She gets where I am in life. She knows how to connect with me, inspire me.”

She also was thrilled when Professor Norma Day-Vines asked her if she could use some of her Counseling Techniques classwork for a research project and if she were interested in being a teaching assistant.

“That was the greatest compliment,” said Castleberry. “I felt like I was where I was supposed to be.”

Castleberry said it feels good to be back in school. She likes interacting with the professors and absorbing the knowledge of her profession. She even likes getting a report card.

“I want to know it all and apply it,” she said. “I’m a much deeper student now. You know what questions to ask.”

For one assignment, she had to write an autobiography. It was only 10 percent of her grade, but she spent a lot of time on it because, she said, it was necessary for her to figure out her own story before she begins counseling clients.

“I eventually want to take the skills I have developed personally and professionally over a lifetime and combine them with my Hopkins education to help other women, parents and families enjoy the same feeling of leading a fulfilling life.”