Notable Women of Austin: Debra Schmitt hoping to make a difference

Published 6:24 am Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By Carolyn Bogott

American Association of University Women

Most of us give little thought to Correctional Services and what that work entails.

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Debra Schmitt certainly does not fit the nebulous image we may have of a probation officer.  It is clear she is very good at her work, supervising adults who have committed felony level offenses, including sex offenses.

She previously worked at the county level and moved to the state level in May 2019. She supervises about 85 clients, some in prison and some in treatment with other agencies for drug and alcohol abuse, seeing some as often as weekly depending on their risk level.

Debra says she has two important tools in her work.  First is the resource of the cognitive behavior programs she is trained to facilitate, including  “Thinking for a Change,”  “Decision Points,” “Moving On,” and “Driving with Care.”These programs focus on learning to deal with the challenges of changing behavior.

Her second tool is thinking outside the box. Debra emphasizes that, “one size does not fit all.”

Debra Schmitt

Remembering that each client was once “a cute baby, likely cherished by someone,” helps her to keep in mind that “we are not defined by our worst act.” And so she tries to find the best way to support each client. Developing trust with the person she is supervising is extremely key to her work and just in her manner, it is clear that Debra can inspire trust.

Debra says her inspiration to do this work came primarily from her parents.  Her father, Wayne Wollenburg, was a police detective and her mother, Linda, was a social worker.

Debra wanted to find something sort of in between those two roles.  Completing a degree from Mankato State University in Probation and Corrections, she worked at the Crime Victims Resource Center from 1988 to 2000, seeing that side of crime situations.

Her mentor and supervisor in her years at Mower County Correctional Services, Steve King, supported her and encouraged her innovative ideas when working with probationers.

King said of Debra, “Her work is so impactful because she is so relationship-oriented and she tends to small details.  She is a gift to the community of those struggling with addiction and is masterful at creating a safe, non-judgmental environment where she becomes a confidant to clients. She helps dispel the myth that probation officers are just interested in enforcing the law.”

As a result of her conclusion that much of crime is caused by substance abuse, Debra is deeply concerned about supporting people who are in recovery.  She started “Coffee Connections” which is a support group for those fighting addiction. This group meets each Friday at the Mower County Correctional Service Center. These two hour sessions include discussion of a specific topic, like “Person, Places, Things,” or “Playgrounds and Playmates,” addressing the need for a complete change of activities and associates in order to achieve and maintain sobriety. In addition, upcoming sober events are publicized, such as bingo or kickball at the AA Club and other support group meetings. Fourteen to 17 people attend each week.

When asked about her inspiration and support for her work, Debra credits her clients who have taught her so much about the challenges and barriers to getting and keeping sober.  Also, she draws inspiration from the fact that she has had some real long-lasting successes with people. Debra also keeps physically fit by teaching fitness classes at the Y.  She and her husband, who is also a probation officer, have a son, 26, and daughters who are 16 and 14.

Debra’s philosophy of life is to “Try to do the right thing and go the extra mile” and “Hard work pays off.”  Her hope for her clients is “That society will become educated about addiction and meet people where they are. It is so easy to judge, but everyone has a story.”

What an inspirational woman, Debra Schmitt is. We are so lucky to have her in our community.

For more information about the Austin Branch of AAUW, contact Sue Grove  or Carolyn Bogott The American Association of University Women, now AAUW, is open to anyone who has completed a two-year degree or beyond.  AAUW welcomes men who support our objectives and there are student memberships available. AAUW has been empowering women since 1881. We support equity and education for women.  Scholarships are offered, as well as help in litigation in cases dealing with sex discrimination.  We are the most important and highly respected research and lobbying organization dealing with women’s issues such as equal opportunity and job equality.