PEPPERELL -- Calling May 19 a big day for John Hoyt is an understatement.
That morning, he attended a graduation ceremony for Northern Essex Community College, receiving high honors in the Human Services Department, but had to leave early. Hoyt and several friends drove home, changed into formal wear, and went to the Audobon Society in Concord, N.H., where he married Jill, his girlfriend of five years.
It was a weekend of new beginnings, he says. His degree is a step forward in a field he is passionate about.
"I got into counseling after taking a psychology class one year and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, told me to 'just do it,'" Hoyt said.
That was two years ago. He left his job in the banking industry and became a residential counselor at North American Family Institute home in Lowell while taking courses in the NECC Human Services Department.
There, he discovered kids that needed the same thing he was looking for when he was in high school: guidance.
"High school is tough for any teenager," said Hoyt. "Teens are durable but there is a lot of stuff they have to deal with."
Hoyt attended North Middlesex Regional High School for four years, but poor attendance caused him to repeat his senior year -- at Groton-Dunstable.
"My senior year at GDRHS was everything that most seniors look forward to. I made many friends and had a great experience there," he said, and the experience shaped his future.
While attending the school, he was required to maintain a 3.3 grade-point average and make two presentations to NECC's honors society, all while working full time for the Lowell home and taking care of his two kids, Landon, 2, and Madison, 10.
Apart from practicing day-to-day skills such as quick response and de-escalation scenarios, Hoyt says he delved into behavioral theory.
"There is a wide variety of people that you're going to get in this industry. The problems that got them into a group home are one thing, but the difficulty of being a teen magnifies that by 10," he said.
Hoyt's schooling exposed him to the empirical side of the spectrum, answering clinical questions about methods and practices.
"It's important to be objective -- if something is working, we need to develop theories and concepts and find common demoninators. There are many different theories out there," Hoyt said.
Because each kid is unique, Hoyt is constantly refining what he calls his "toolbox," ways of talking to and building rapport with troubled youth.
"A lot of times kids are moving through the system, from the home they will go on to hospitals, incarceration or another home," Hoyt said. "You need to do what you can with them when you have them."
Hoyt says he has helped kids find jobs, get their learner's permits, coordinate exercise sessions and even do smaller tasks like balance a checkbook.
Research funding is hard to come by, and the industry is not one for people looking for high pay. Autism-spectrum disorder research is a fairly new field and funding is usually thrown out the window, according to Hoyt.
"It's all political when it comes to funding. People don't look at ground level," he said.
Workers like him, on the ground level, are in an industry with a high burnout rate, Hoyt said, but he enjoys the communication and the sense of aid he is able to provide.
"In sales and banking I found people were completely cutthroat about their work, I didn't want to be like that anymore," Hoyt said.
Safety and security, for him, is number one now. Hoyt wishes to continue his education in human services and has applied to the University of New Hampshire doctorate of psychology program.
Recently, he transferred to a NAFI facility in Manchester and is moving there this summer. After his big year, and the "burnout" nature of his work, he is taking some time before he starts in New Hampshire.
"If you're caring for people who are in need, you need to take care of yourself, too," Hoyt said.
Follow Luke Steere at twitter.com/lsnashobapub.