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VOL. 132 | NO. 89 | Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dream About to Become Reality at Youth Villages

By Don Wade

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Earlier this week, Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler presided over the groundbreaking of a $22 million expansion at the Bartlett campus that will result in a 148,000-square-foot center designed to enhance the treatment of the community’s most at-risk and vulnerable youth.

“These are the best days,” he said.

Yet such venues often don’t have the best names. Frequently, they are given long, cumbersome names that subliminally shout of regulations, formalities and institutionalism. But not this time.

“Bill’s Place” is named for and dedicated to William “Bill” and Marjorie Lawler – Patrick’s parents. Patrick and his brothers grew up in Whitehaven, were active at their school and in sports, and Bill and Marjorie were volunteering and providing leadership in all that they did.

In fact, Patrick likes to say that he and his brothers “won the parent lottery.”

But the late Bill Lawler was not so fortunate. His mother died when he was just 2 years old. This was during the Great Depression. And from age 6 to 11, Bill lived in an orphanage.

“I hated that damn place from the moment they dropped me off,” Bill often said.

Saying his father always preferred the simple over the ostentatious, Patrick Googled the name “Bill’s Place” and found a diner in La Grange Park, Ill., that stresses “a feeling of warmth and friendliness” toward all who enter.

And so Patrick Lawler hopes it will be at Bill’s Place, which won’t be completed until the spring of 2019, but at some level has been a work in progress for decades under the Youth Villages umbrella.

Today, the need is greater than ever. Currently, there are 65 youths with a combination of medical and emotional/mental issues on the waiting list for the Bartlett campus.

“That’s what’s driving it, the size of that waiting list,” Lawler said of the expansion.

Too often these are the young people that are difficult, if not impossible, to place. Recently, Lawler says, they accepted a young woman with severe diabetes and complicated behavioral issues requiring 24-hour supervision.

“Nobody else would take her,” said Tim Goldsmith, chief clinical officer at Youth Villages. “A lot of the traditional, old ways of providing services to these kids, there’s not any evidence it does any good. For example, individual therapy for a troubled 15-year-old is about the worst thing you can do. It’s got the least amount of science behind it that says it works.”

Bill’s Place will, among other things, provide creative outlets via recreational therapy. Already, there is a very successful therapeutic drumming program. A theater is being added, a new gym, a dedicated art room, a new outdoor pool, plus additional classrooms, family counseling rooms, sensory therapy rooms, physical and occupational therapy rooms, and a computer lab.

“You’ll see a lot of kids, when they’re really troubled, start to rock back and forth,” Goldsmith said. “This therapeutic drumming helps with the regular rhythmic activities to help them calm themselves.”

Michael Gordon, who is a therapeutic drumming instructor, said: “A lot of them are reluctant (at first), but after the first two beats you’ll see the mood change. And after that, the rest is history. The level of aggression our youth have, this is an opportunity to release a lot of the pressures, the emotions.”

Youth Villages board member Jimmy Lackie served as chairman of the capital campaign. He has been fundraising on behalf of Youth Villages, a private nonprofit which helps more than 22,000 children and families each year in 13 states and Washington, D.C., since 1984. And he is armed with data.

“It’s one thing to have hot air and say you can do this and do that and never follow up,” Lackie said. “It’s got to be evidence-based and we’ve been able to do that with some of our randomized, controlled trials that the University of Chicago did. It’s nice to have those numbers.”

Bill’s Place will add 72 beds, bringing the bed total to 144 and allowing almost 450 youths to be served annually. When the center opens in 2019, it’s projected to add 150 new jobs.

Another part of Bill’s Place is the creation of a national laboratory for Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) – a new, evidence-based treatment model for troubled youth. CPS is disseminated by Think: Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University Medical School’s teaching hospital.

Findings will be shared with partners locally, regionally and nationally with the aim to expand the CPS model.

Having youth living and learning together is part of moving them toward healthier futures. Or as Goldsmith said: “We try to create what we call positive peer cultures here. They’re gonna learn how to manage themselves within a group of kids.”

That’s an important step. But the biggest one reunites families.

“The key to this whole thing, you’ve got to be able to take them back home,” Goldsmith said, adding that on average youth stay at Youth Villages for six or seven months. “So we’ll have very intensive family work that goes on. We’ll bring parents in where the kids are living. We’ll spend a lot of time making that transition happen. You’ve got to be able to get them back home.”

To that place where a young Bill Lawler longed to be.

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