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Sunday, August 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Life coach' Paul Campillo does therapy in his own quiet way

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the world of social work and youth counseling, just getting troubled teenagers to talk candidly about their problems is considered a breakthrough.

So heads turned a few years ago when counselors in King County juvenile justice circles heard that an untrained, 20-something mentor was doing more than breaking through to kids.

Using silence, patience, street savvy and an anytime/anywhere counseling policy, he was quietly transforming clients who seemed beyond reach.

The man in question was Paul Campillo. Now 31, he's trying to revolutionize the way society helps young people — and adults for that matter — tap into their potential.

Even in a field where unconventional practices are common, Campillo is a standout.

Whether it's teaching clients the power of meditation, the value of a healthy diet or the benefits of personal investing, he's always looking for the spark that'll change a person's outlook.

Today Campillo works primarily through three Seattle-based programs. Wake Up Smiling is Campillo's own life-coaching service, open to young people and adults who need guidance on everything from weight problems to professional burnout. Campillo also mentors groups of kids through Everyone Has a Song, a music education program affiliated with Seattle Public Schools for kids who need instruction and encouragement outside of class.

Campillo's most challenging work, however, is at Raising Our Youth As Leaders, or ROYAL. Its aim is to reduce the number of African-American young people in the juvenile detention system by giving alternatives to jail time.

Nationwide, blacks age 12 to 17 make up about 15 percent of the total youth population but represent 44 percent of kids held in juvenile detention, according to a 2002 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The disparity is just as severe in King County, said Debra Robinson, project supervisor at ROYAL.

ROYAL is funded by King County and managed by a nonprofit group of defense attorneys called Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons. It offers legal advocacy as well as referrals to drug and alcohol abuse, employment assistance, traditional counseling and life-coaching services in the community.

The "life-coaching" service is where Campillo comes in. He helps kids identify and set personal goals, reduce stress, forge healthier relationships with loved ones and think more clearly about life.

Sounds easy. But people who work with teens in crisis say that many either can't grasp or refuse to practice the skills that'll make life better for them. They've grown numb from a steady barrage of affirmations and lectures on "doing the right thing."

Colleagues with years more experience than Campillo can't quite explain how he helps his clients take charge of their lives when they don't respond well to other counselors.

"He's reaching people in ways that other projects just don't, or couldn't," said Robinson. "He's not afraid to try new things, and that's what we need to reach these kids."

'Aura of peacefulness'

Upon meeting Campillo, the first impression is of a man dressed in layers. His black-rimmed eyeglasses, closely shaved head, goatee, urban wardrobe and sly smile cast him as a hip guy.

But he's disarmingly graceful for someone so young. He sits smiling during uncomfortable pauses in conversation, cool as can be.

Also striking is the way he peppers his speech with intellectual musings, the result not of college — he never went — but of 10 years reading everything from ancient philosophy to modern economic tracts on his own time.

The fact that Campillo is a Latino who has struggled with his own family issues and who's versed in hip-hop culture may help him relate to young people. He's especially interested in working with African-American teens.

Then again, those who know Campillo say maybe he has the unique ability to charm people out of their misery, a gift for saving people from their own worst instincts and habits.

Campillo considers himself a "mental hygienist."

He talks people through the anger, depression, low self-esteem and past traumas that block their paths. He challenges clients to discard the negative messages they tell themselves. He describes it as "cutting the bushes."

"Whatever happens in the outer world first went on in the mind," Campillo said, explaining the link between a person's negative thoughts and problems in life. "If we can eliminate and help release a lot of those things, you can see drastic changes."

Viewed in this light, Campillo admits, his mission is no different from that of any counselor.

It's his personality that distinguishes him. What Campillo lacks in professional credentials, he apparently makes up for with a style and acuteness that go to a person's essence.

"I thought he was a Buddhist monk or something," said Sally Rye, a mental-health worker at the private Zion Preparatory Academy, where Campillo has led goal-setting workshops for middle-schoolers. "He's been here before, I swear."

"He just has this aura of peacefulness," Rye said. "He's a very calm person in the chaotic lives that kids have."

A caseworker at a community-based counseling program often juggles the needs of two dozen young people at one time.

But Campillo said he keeps his ROYAL case load at nine or 10, allowing him to devote more of his time and attention to clients instead of to paperwork. Often he'll attend a client's juvenile court hearing to offer moral support. He visits music classes in between sessions. Meetings with his own Wake Up Smiling clients often happen in what would normally be off hours.

Campillo said he's exhilarated rather than exhausted by the work schedule. It's rewarding, he said, to slip in and out of people's lives, hopefully leaving self-revelation in his wake.

Campillo's main office is a late-model white Honda Civic, and it's not uncommon for him to hold consultations there. His tools are a pen, a yellow note pad and a silver mobile phone, which reads "Batline" on the menu screen, in keeping with his policy of all-hours access.

"There is the saying, 'The messenger is the message' — he's the message," said Robinson. "This is more than a career for him; it's who he is. Because of that, he'll work until 11 p.m.; he'll work weekends. He's not afraid to go the extra mile."

Revelatory silence

What about the results?

Campillo says some of his clients solve their problems in a matter of minutes with his help. But he concedes that in other cases, it may take months to know whether he's having an effect.

For some, his intensity takes a little getting used to.

"If he meets some resistance, it's because in a silent way he's asking them to stop, be still and take a look at themselves," Robinson said. "That makes people nervous. Sometimes the initial reaction is to flee."

But Campillo's most loyal clients say their lives have changed dramatically.

Jonté Ausler, 21, was a quarrelsome teen in juvenile detention on drug charges about four years ago when a caseworker suggested he meet Campillo. The "mental hygienist" knew right away that Ausler was too distracted by legal and family problems. What he needed most was to settle down.

During one session after Ausler's release, Campillo arranged to meet him at Seward Park along the southwest shore of Lake Washington for a session that would start at 4 in the morning.

They met, and Campillo suggested they walk the park's outer loop in opposite directions.

When the two completed the loop, "we didn't speak," Ausler said. "We just stood and looked at the water, and listened."

"The thoughts I had when I just observed brought me peace," he said. Gradually, Ausler let down his defenses.

He and Campillo went on to attended a meditation retreat in Southwest Washington, where they spent 10 days in total silence.

Today, with his new focus and positive outlook, Ausler is pursuing his dream of being a playwright and stage performer. He's acted in several local stage shows, and he plans to enroll in a theater conservatory this winter.

'It tripped me out'

Campillo's peculiar mix of laid-back attitude and determination have struck colleagues as well.

"I think that part of it is the strength of his own faith that he can make a difference and reach people," said Betty Lou Valentine, former director of the Seattle-based Central Youth and Family Services, one of the ROYAL referral agencies. Campillo was an outreach worker in a youth substance-abuse program there until last year, when he left to focus on the life-coaching project.

"The intensity gets through," said Valentine, who admits that she and others scratched their heads the first time they saw him at work a few years ago.

"Paul's way is very labor intensive, and he spends a lot of time and effort on each client," she said. He took on half the case load of other staffers. "But it seemed to have such good results, we felt it was worth it."

"He has gotten people to do things that I don't think I could do, like get people to be silent for days at a time," Valentine said. "I never would have expected the kids who've done it to do it."

Campillo doesn't always use his silence technique to help people concentrate on their problems. With Nadia Agha of Bellevue, he used hours of conversation to achieve the same result.

Agha, 23, said she was desperately seeking help with weight, depression and family problems earlier this year when a friend referred her to Campillo.

She called him, and the two wound up talking for three hours. The next day, they met face-to-face and spent seven hours together, dissecting her problems and setting goals.

"It tripped me out," Agha said, laughing. "I didn't know what to think. He kind of made me see things that I never actually looked at."

Campillo taught Agha new breathing techniques, as well as the virtues of eating raw veggies and fruit. By eating better, walking 20 minutes a day and, more important, changing her attitude, Agha said she's lost more than 100 pounds in the past four months. Her goal is to lose another 40 pounds.

She credits Campillo with giving her the energy to follow sound advice.

Campillo brushes off any notion that he has changed people's lives. Only they have the power to do that, he insists. He simply helps people see their lives more clearly.

"It's totally up to them," he said. "I'm just the exposure guy."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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