Mental health counselor serves youth, families

John Koester in his office at the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau in Forest Lake.
John Koester in his office at the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau in Forest Lake.


Halfway through his internship at the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau in Forest Lake, John Koester is learning what it means to be a therapist.

“The way I approach therapy is very relational,” he said. “Individuals can’t be understood outside their relationships” with their families and at school.

Koester sees clients through three programs.

The Twelve and Under Restorative Justice Program is for kids referred by parents, school or law enforcement. They may have been in a school fight, or arrested for theft, shoplifting or vandalism.

In four or five sessions, he has a chance to influence them, perhaps help them change course and avoid bad choices in the future. “Giving kids the help they need before it gets even more serious” is how the program is described.

To get their lives back on track, the youth learn the consequences of their actions, explore family dynamics and begin to make amends for their actions.

Homework includes writing an apology letter and completing a cost analysis of the situation. A weekly parenting meeting is included in the Twelve and Under program, which costs $100.

REACH (Recognizing and Exploring Anger, Conflict and Hope) is an anger management program for ages 13 to 16. In five or six sessions, teens get help understanding anger. They learn to quit hurting the people around them, to understand themselves better and to get along with authorities. The benefits can be huge, as anger can keep people from achieving their life goals.

Teens in the REACH program are referred by parents or school. The cost ranges from $100 to $175, depending on the county of residence.

The third program involves counseling clients who seek therapy. These can be families or individuals, including teens.

Instead of a set number of sessions, therapy continues as needed. Clients often set their own goals early in the process, Koester said, and the sessions end when the goals are largely met.

How does it work?

The purpose, he explained, is to help clients seek change themselves.

“The point of therapy is to facilitate, coach and guide their skills and resources so they are empowered to seek change,” Koester said. “I don’t think lasting change will happen if I simply hand them tools. Change will happen if they internalize what happens in therapy.”

For Koester it starts with getting to know the person, so it’s important that they get along.

With kids and families who would rather not be there at all, he must first overcome their resistance to open up. It probably helps that he is young. Instead of being interrogated by an authority figure in a suit, with Koester it may seem more like talking to a friend.

He uses that asset, plus an inviting room with warm colors and comfortable furniture, to make clients feel at ease so he can explore what’s going on.

“Part of my approach is that certain beliefs, certain patterns of behavior, certain structures can be passed down from generation to generation,” Koester said. “Exploring our family origins, how they impact and shape who we are, can provide a powerful medium for change.”

It’s evident when you’re in his presence that Koester really wants to be there. “I’m intrigued by people and their inter-relationships,” he said. “I have an existential fascination with the human experience and how we make sense and meaning out of our lives. It’s been a journey and a process.”

Exploring where his clients are coming from gives him the perspective he needs to help them, he said.

“It allows them to seek lasting change. The past doesn’t need to be a predictor of the future,” he concluded.

Koester is in the third and final year of Bethel Seminary’s master of arts in marriage and family therapy program.  His undergraduate degree is from Northwestern College in St. Paul, where he earned a bachelor of arts with emphasis on marriage and family therapy. He is from the Stillwater area.

The Bethel degree requires 300 hours of client contact. His one-year internship at the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau to fulfill this degree requirement began last June and ends in May.

Before coming to Forest Lake, Koester had four years experience working with adolescents and their families, training them for healthy lives with healthy relationships.

At Forest Lake he is supervised by licensed therapists Kari Lyn Wampler and Bob Downs. He meets with clients about seven hours each week, and meets with a supervisor one hour per week.

After graduating in June, Koester said, he will probably pursue full licensure. He also likes to write, and  a further degree is not unlikely. “Graduation is more of a beginning than the end,” he said.

In spite of the conflict, even angst, that he encounters in the job, Koester has no regrets.

“Have I experienced personal and professional growth? Check. Will I continue to experience personal and professional growth? Check. Life is a trajectory, a process, a journey,” he said. “There are immense learning opportunities here.”

But by its nature, the job can be an emotional burden. Koester said one of the reasons he chose Bethel University is the emphasis on taking care of yourself so you can take care of your clients.

And the positive outcomes are rewarding. “It’s the only job where you work yourself out of a job,” he said.


The Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau is located at 244 North Lake Street in Forest Lake.

The non-profit organization has provided enrichment programs and intervention support to youth and families since 1976.

Interns at both the BA and MA level help the bureau serve hundreds of youth and families in community justice and youth enrichment.

John Koester is available for appointments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

LAYSB offers a sliding scale fee based on ability to pay, and accepts some insurance.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau at 651-464-3685 or visit