Photo: Alumna Belle Yaffe is a therapist with a history in special education.

A force for families

Belle Yaffe, ’70, followed her values to a career in special education and social services

Belle Yaffe’s calling springs from her family’s membership in the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota.

As children, her parents were forced to leave home to attend mission-run Indian boarding schools that aimed to replace their culture and values. Her father, who served as a B17 pilot in World War II, faced discrimination when he returned from military service and tried to get a job. After searching for work throughout the western United States and Alaska, he and her mother relocated to the Twin Cities suburbs, where her father started a carpentry business and the family faced challenges as the only people of color in their neighborhood.

These stories of oppression had an impact on Yaffe. At the same time, her family maintained a sense of humor and laughed a lot, which drew her to family-related work. She was inspired to work with families and children, particularly people of color, throughout her life.

Yaffe was the first person in her family to attend college, enrolling at the University because it was affordable and she knew she would get a good education. She wasn’t sure what major to pursue, but she wanted to make a difference.

“I just followed my values,” she says.

Meeting diverse needs

Her values, and the guidance of professor Dewey Force, led her to the special education program. The late Dr. Force—whom she calls “my driving force”—also helped her get a scholarship that allowed her to move from home into a quieter living situation with fewer family obligations. She volunteered, participated in student groups, and minored in art history.

After graduation, Yaffe went to work as a special education teacher in St. Paul. Students were bussed to her classroom because their home schools lacked special-education programs. Despite the distance, Yaffe made an extra effort to get parents involved, with home visits and field trips that built trust. Thanks to persistence and supportive colleagues, Yaffe remained in the job for several years. When she left teaching to raise her three sons, she remained active as a school volunteer.

When Yaffe returned to work, she became a therapist at a family social service agency, where she worked with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, women getting out of prostitution, and “whoever walked in the door.” Recognizing how hard it was for families living in poverty to travel to appointments, she went to their homes.

“It was very honoring to be invited into their homes,” she says. “I felt blessed to have a great job.”

Eventually Yaffe established a private counseling practice with a focus on the Native American, African American, and LGBT communities and worked with the Indian Health Board.

Today, Yaffe sustains her passion for working with children through a pet therapy program, training her dogs to visit classrooms with students with severe disabilities. She makes jewelry for fun and travels with her husband, spending time with family in Colorado. Yaffe also is an active partner in her late father’s business and continues his legacy of philanthropy, especially in the Native American community.

In 2016, Yaffe was recognized with a CEHD Distinguished Alumni Award in recognition of her life’s work in serving the needs of diverse children and families.

“Because of the University of Minnesota,” she says, “I had a chance to have this wonderful life.”

Learn more about the special education program in the department of Educational Psychology.

Story by Ann Dingman | Photo by Greg Helgeson | Spring/Summer 2017