Human services instructor has found a home at Inver Hills
Thomas Reis started his first day of school thinking he was no different from any other child. From day one he found out otherwise. Tom was disabled, but his family treated him as if his disability did not exist. His mom always told him he was a beautiful boy. Tom’s classmates at his Chicago elementary school took the opposite approach.
The right side of Tom’s face is paralyzed due to traumatic nerve damage at birth. His left hand is severely impaired from what doctors call terminal transfer defect. Tom’s mom weighed less than 109 pounds at the time of his birth. She had received no prenatal care and was giving birth to her fourth child in four years.
“My mom died for four minutes on the delivery table,” Tom said.
The level of shock caused by his first schoolyard encounters is difficult to comprehend. The other boys at the school teamed up to taunt and mock him—and they never let up. They got in his face to make fun of his face. They would show him a hand and act as if that hand had no fingers.
“I got in a lot of fights,” Tom said. “I still remember my mom in our kitchen teaching me how to fight. She told me never to start a fight.”
For several years, Tom fought, winning the majority of his fights. Because he was such an angry little boy, Tom never had to fight the same boy more than once. He took out his rage on anyone who dared pick on him.
“I called my left hand ‘Nubby,'” Tom said. “The other boys didn’t think nubby could fight, but I fooled them.”
At the age of 10, Tom’s family moved to Minnesota and he never fought again.
“Education is an invitation to transformation. My definition of teaching is to awaken.” — Thomas Reis
Tom was still troubled by his disability. He considered himself the “ugliest person in the world.” That conception was transformed by a teacher, a remarkable woman named Eileen Schreck. She taught a class about family living and relationships at Tom’s high school.
“Everyone called her Gramma,” he said. “She is a little waif of a woman, only four-eleven. She was the first person who believed in me outside my family. She thinks of me as the son she never had.” To this day, Tom gets together with Gramma and her husband twice a month at Baker’s Square.
With his self-image reconstituted, Tom continued his education. He has a Master of Science in Human Development and Family Studies from Kansas State University, a Master of Social Work from the University of Georgia and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from The College of St. Scholastica. He has extensive experience working in the field, having served as a licensed social worker, therapist, family therapist and psychotherapist at hospital, social service and collegiate settings as well as in private practice.
Tom got his first teaching experience at KSU in the late 1980s. He discovered a love for British Columbia while teaching for eight years at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. “I have dual citizenship, U.S. and Canadian,” he said. “When I retire, I would like to move back to British Columbia.”
He taught for five years in the Human Services department at Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane, Wash., and served as a faculty field instructor for five years at the Graduate School of Social Work at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash. He continues to serve as an adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Tom started teaching at Inver Hills in 2005. Three years later, he was recognized as the college’s Teacher of the Year.
“I’ve taught more than 5,000 students at six colleges in two countries and three states,” Tom said. “Inver Hills is the best. I feel respected and valued. I love the place.”
Headwinds: The Dead Reckoning of the Heart
by Thomas A. Reis
In 1981, at 22 years old, Tom embarked on a solo, 58-day bicycle trip from Florence, Ore., to Chesapeake Bay, Va. The journey within proved much greater than his trip on the bike. This became a journey of the heart and soul. Events along the way triggered flashbacks from earlier times in Tom’s life, starting with his birth, when the doctor encouraged his parents to pull the plug; to overcoming his disabilities; to surviving the heart wrenching family loss.
The story encompasses his experiences as Tom pedals through unexpected snow storms, climbs over 11,000-foot passes, and crosses the Continental Divide. Along the way, he has chance encounters and a near-death experience as he struggles to complete his trip, hampered and emboldened by his life reflections. As a college professor and therapist, Tom shares how his life and journey has fueled his passion for teaching others, taking his students on inward journeys of the heart and soul as well, reflecting on relationships, love and the meaning of life.
This is a story of redemption and transformation. In it are lessons of inspiration, sorrow, courage, tragedy, hope and joy. It’s a story that engages the reader in the dead reckoning of the heart. — Copy from book jacket
Tom teaches The Journey of Love and Relationships, an exceptionally popular two-credit course co-listed under Human Services and Interdisciplinary Studies. The course investigates the often mysterious phenomenon called love from a variety of perspectives, including:
“The Journey of Love and Relationships might be the only course of its kind in the nation,” Tom said. “Students flock to the course and it always fills quickly. I have to bring in extra chairs to accommodate all the students. I teach the class at night and that ordinarily means students are out the door when it’s over. But the subject of love gets my students talking and they linger after class to keep the discussion going.”
Tom has straightforward advice for students thinking about a career in human services:
- Your mindset must include a strong desire to work with people.
- Your motto should read “Be the difference that makes a difference.”
- If you really want to be effective, work on yourself.
- In the search for meaning in a person’s life, you are the meaning maker.
- You are the voice of the voiceless.
- You empower the powerless.
- You invite and create hope where there is no hope.
Tom resides in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. He is an avid sailor and enjoys taking his Laser, a single-handed racing dinghy, out on Lake Calhoun. In the last 12 years as a PSIA-certified Nordic ski instructor, he has taught more than 3,000 students to cross-country ski. He goes snowboarding in the winter and likes to roller-ski in the off-season. He is an accomplished long-distance cyclist and at the age of 22 cycled nearly 4,000 miles from Oregon to the Chesapeake Bay. He documented that journey and his life story in the book, Headwinds: The Dead Reckoning of the Heart.
Thomas Reis believes in the life-changing power harnessed by the teaching profession. “Education is an invitation to transformation,” he said. “My definition of teaching is to awaken.”
For more information about The Journey of Love and Relationships and other Human Services courses at Inver Hills Community College, contact:
- Thomas Reis, M.S.W, M.S.
Human Services Instructor