Denfeld News

Aug. 24, 2015
Duluth News Tribune

Alum returns to inspire Woodland Hills youth
By John Lundy 

The last time Chad Tafs entered the Woodland Hills residential treatment center, it wasn't by choice.

His sister grabbed the 14-year-old Tafs' hair so he couldn't jump out of the car at every stop as his mother drove him to the Arrowhead Juvenile Center, Tafs said. He was transferred to Woodland Hills by court order, the Duluth native told 11 teenage boys who are current residents of the facility in Duluth's Woodland neighborhood. 

He entered as a liar and a thief, he told the teens, all of whom are in the center's juvenile justice program. His sentence of 90 days grew to nine months because of misbehavior.

When Tafs, now 46 and the father of five boys, returned on Monday for the first time since then, he was driving his $70,000 Corvette — a fact he made no attempt to hide from the teens.

He came to give back, he said, in the form of a $10,000 donation and a straightforward message of encouragement to the current residents.

But as Tafs, who now owns a flooring company in Austin, Texas, arrived at Woodland Hills with his wife, Rachel, it wasn't without trepidation.

"When I got here and I was sitting in the car, I had to take a few deep breaths," he said later. "Because (Woodland Hills) really did change my life."

Tafs' message to the kids, most of whom are from the Twin Cities metro area: He had been where they are. They can get to where he is.

"I am you," he told them. "I have been in those chairs. I have been in those dorms. I've had those restrictions."

Tafs told the boys he had never known his father, and that he grew up on welfare.

If he hadn't gone through Woodland Hills 32 years ago, Tafs said, "I don't think I'd be here. I'd be in prison, or living on the streets or causing trouble in some aspect."

Earlier, Tafs had gone on a tour of the facilities led by Breanna Schueller, development associate at Woodland Hills. The small group included Moreno, a 17-year-old from the Twin Cities who has been in the juvenile justice program for three months. (The News Tribune has agreed not to use the last names of Woodland Hills clients because they are minors in the social services or juvenile court systems.)

The group entered a room that was bare except for a few chairs. One wall was covered with questions about issues such as anger management. Tafs quizzed Moreno about what went on in the room, and Moreno explained that the teens would meet there in a group with their adult leader to discuss how they had handled various situations during the day.

"This is the exact same setting and those are the exact same questions" as when he was in the program, Tafs said.

He observed many changes since 1983-84 as well. A wing of the building, constructed long after Tafs left, houses the girls' side of the center today. The cramped gym that he knew is being transformed into a fitness center, with the gym housed in a freestanding building. He learned that ceramics isn't part of the program these days. Tafs said he still keeps the ceramic pig he made at Woodland Hills on his nightstand.

As they completed the tour, Moreno asked Tafs what he got out of his time at Woodland Hills. "Respect. Education. Hard work. Personal accountability," Tafs quickly responded.

He later encouraged the youths to think about the future and set goals. He told them that he was 15 when he wrote down his goal: to become a millionaire. He is well on his way toward that goal, he told them.

"You guys are more valuable than you think, because you have lived the hard part," he told them, adding: "Hard work and honesty trump everything."

Jeff Bradt, the CEO of Woodland Hills, said Tafs' contribution would go toward development of vocational programming. Bradt noted that although Tafs eventually completed college, he already had a successful career in sales for a flooring company before he did that.

"We're working with Lake Superior College to try and create a program for our kids who are not college-bound to give them an attainable, achievable goal that they can get excited about," Bradt said.

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