ODT Superintendent and Champion for Local Youth
Photo by Jamie Alexander
On a fairly consistent basis, Owensboro Day Treatment (ODT) Superintendent Keith Wells is stopped by someone when he is out in the community. Due to his stature and natural charisma, it is not unlikely for Wells to be confused with celebrities and famous athletes. Although it was college basketball that originally brought Wells to Owensboro from the small town of Russellville, Kentucky in 1991, he has since found his calling using his competitive nature and natural compassion to love on the students that often challenge others.
“I enjoy competing — I think working with kids is the ultimate competition,” Wells said. “I love the kids nobody else does. I love kids who have made bad choices. I have met thousands of kids who have made bad choices, but I’ve yet to meet a bad kid.”
The former Brescia University men’s basketball team captain majored in sociology with a minor in psychology, and said he originally planned to go into law enforcement after college.
“That was the plan,” Wells said. “I took the State police exam and then decided, ‘I think I want to try kids.’”
Wells has been encouraging students to succeed in some capacity for 27 years and has served as the superintendent at ODT for the past 20 years. Run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice in partnership with Daviess County Public Schools, Owensboro Day Treatment serves at-risk youth ages 12-17. In the 20 years he has been with ODT, Wells has gained the respect of students and staff alike, earning him the title of 2021 Day Treatment Superintendent of the Year. Office coordinator Andrea Ratliff has known and worked alongside Wells since 2001 and nominated him for the award.
“He processes things internally much better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Ratliff said. “He doesn’t even realize his effect on molding people.”
Although Wells has admittedly never been in trouble himself, countless co-workers and members of the community describe him as having an uncanny knack for understanding and connecting with kids. ODT Counselor Drew Partlow said that in situations where Wells could be engaged in a power struggle with students, he is a “teen whisperer” of sorts.
“He has an intangible gift with students — he is very effective,” Partlow said. “He prioritizes bringing students into this building that have a high probability of success.”
Wells said a good portion of the work he, the counselors, and youth workers do at ODT relies on behavior modification and demonstrating to students how to make good choices. He said he credits his value system, his integrity and thoughtful decision-making to his parents’ influence and his strong upbringing.
“My parents get all the credit,” Wells said. “I just try to do right. If you’re doing right by kids, you can never be wrong. That’s always been my motto.”
Most of those “kids” find their way to Wells through the juvenile court system. County Attorney Claude Porter works in the Juvenile Drug Court Division and has known Wells on a professional and personal level for more than 20 years.
“He’s been a real asset to drug court and a real asset to the community,” Porter said. “It seems like there are a lot of teenage boys that he can reach that others can’t. He just has a knack for being able to talk to kids and remind them of their obligations without being authoritative.”
One teenage boy that Wells was able to make an impression on was Jonathan Blandford. Dr. Blandford said that, at 16 years old, he was a troubled teen who soon found himself in a downward spiral. He reluctantly attended ODT with no real goals or aspirations other than completing the program. Then, he says, Wells made an undeniable connection with him that would change the trajectory of his life.
“I was finally emotionally able to open up,” Blandford said. “Within a few weeks I would talk to him about everything. Suddenly, I was awake and waiting on the bus. The check-in process was one of the highlights of starting the day. I participated as much as I could, and I couldn’t wait to go see Mr. Wells.”
It has been 18 years since Dr. Blandford was a student at ODT, but he still credits Wells with helping him discover himself and his passions during one of the most difficult times of his life.
“Through those six months I was really able to find myself, find my passions and start to look forward to life,” Blandford said. “With his help, I was able to realize I had value and that I could have dreams, goals and aspirations. I decided I wanted to go to college after all. I had this wild idea that I would become a doctor.”
Blandford said, with Wells help, he was able to get accepted into Collegiate High School and then Owensboro Community & Technical College. From there, Blandford attended a four-year university and eventually completed medical school. He and his family have since returned to Owensboro where he now practices medicine.
“I owe a huge portion of that to Mr. Wells,” Blandford said. “There is really no telling how I would have ended up without him. I do feel like he saved my life.”
Although Wells has literally impacted hundreds of students over the past 20 years, he remembers Blandford fondly and is proud of his accomplishments.
“I walked through it with him,” Wells said. “I love what he has become.”
Wells’ impact reaches far beyond the walls of the Owensboro Day Treatment Center. The man who once held the title of class president and admits he never had a drink of alcohol throughout his college years, serves on the board of directors at River Valley Behavioral Health, Lighthouse Recovery Services, and the Owensboro YMCA.
County Commissioner Mike Koger, who owns the Fairview Drive facility that ODT is currently housed in and leases to the Department of Juvenile Justice, worked with Wells on the design for the building in 2018. The project quickly transitioned into a relationship of mutual respect.
“He’s very well thought of and he’s always willing to help, especially in the community,” Koger said. “I’ve seen him in action. He’s my role model — I really look up to him and what he’s doing for these children.”