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Heidi Mueller: Being Intentional To Reach Your Potential

Heidi Mueller
Director,
Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

As Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Heidi Mueller is spearheading efforts at reform and rehabilitation in Illinois. A youth advocate since she was a teenager, her focus is on helping kids do what they are meant to do – heal, learn and grow into healthy, responsible adults.

“In the end only kindness matters.”

These are the words Heidi Mueller lives by. She was drawn to helping and serving teenagers ― especially those suffering ― from the time she was one herself. “My parents were both public school educators, and they instilled in us a strong orientation towards positive youth development and public service.” Her first experience serving youths was helping create a peer-to-peer suicide hotline for teenagers when she was a junior in high school. 

Originally from Northern Wisconsin and after stints in Minnesota, Taiwan and New York, she settled in Chicago and has been here for almost 22 years. “I got involved more formally in juvenile justice when I first moved to Chicago. As a case manager and counselor, I was working with kids who ended up in the juvenile justice system and I began to develop juvenile justice diversion programming through the community organization I worked for.” Fiercely believing that “every kid has value, every kid has potential,” Heidi’s determination to keep kids out of the deep end of the system was based on her mantra to “act with intention and use every opportunity you get to do a good job and impress someone.”

Heidi has served as the Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016. “One of the best things about this work is how it continues to challenge and change me. Their [the youths’] suffering is something that always confronts me and I am constantly forced to grow, even though it is uncomfortable and painful.” What keeps her going and never fails to inspire her is “seeing the resilience of the kids in our care — not just in terms of their survival but also how their hope and compassion is enduring.” It seems Heidi has some of that resilience herself; one of her biggest tips for young women starting their careers is to tap into their inner strength to get things done. “You have to trust yourself and trust that you have a lot to offer and treat yourself with respect. You might find that you have to work harder or speak up more and in more creative ways to be heard, but do it anyway because you should be heard and your ideas are valuable.”

She credits her strength to her mother. “My mom is the most influential person in my life. We are very close. She has always invested so much love and attention into me and really listens and sees me. She also has been the person who has pushed me the most to be a better person — to be mindful and intentional and determined and effortful in all I do. I am absolutely the way I am because of her.”

About the author

Women's History Month

This story is a part of PbS’ Women’s History Month series, paying homage to all the many amazing women who have led with wisdom, kindness, compassion and bravery to make a difference in the lives of young people across our country. We thank them for sharing their stories and insights with us, and giving their voice to the conversation around juvenile justice.

PbS has been a partner in assisting this facility to become a dynamic work environment that is not satisfied with maintaining the status quo.