Changing lives

Eagle Village finds success with spirit-driven, family-centered treatment for troubled youth

HERSEY —  Preparing to leave Eagle Village, where he has been since late August, a smile spread across Ryan’s face as he saw pastor Jeremiah Ketchum, the organization’s chaplain. Wearing his own jeans - a privilege only given to those at the “heart stage” - the soon-to-be high school junior beamed as he told the center’s spiritual leader he had made it through the program and would be leaving to live with his mother and siblings. Placed at Eagle Village’s residential treatment center by court order after repeated running from his family and uncontrolled partying led to a runaway charge, Ryan never expected his time at the facility to make an impact on his life. “I’ve been to places like this before, so I knew what it was, but I didn’t expect the help that I got here,” said the 16-year-old. Awaiting the final word so he could leave the center, the formerly troubled teen had new goals and a new vision for his life. “I’m getting my life back on track and prioritizing my future,” Ryan said. “I’m getting back to where I need to be so I can go to college on a scholarship.” Ryan is one of the thousands of youth who have been gone through residential care at Eagle Village in the center’s 34-year history. The organization serves children all over the state of Michigan who have severe behavioral problems or who have been victims of abuse or neglect. The center has foster care and adoption services, along with short-term interventions and residential programs where youth typically stay for six to nine months. Most children have been in four to seven other residential placements before coming to Eagle Village. “By the time we get them, they are 14 to 17 and we have to fast-forward in helping them understand and unpack the trauma that has occurred, and refocus on what their hope is,” said Eagle Village President and CEO Cathey Prudhomme. “That’s what our traditional residential program is about. Giving them hope.” Founded in 1968 by Prudhomme’s parents, Kermit and Jean Hainley, Eagle Village began as a place for delinquent boys and has expanded to much more than that. Today, the center can host 84 youth - both male and female - and serves with a motto of child-centered, family-focused, spirit-driven, changing lives. When the organization became overwhelmed with challenges in leadership and programming, Prudhomme, who became the organization’s president in 2010, was called in as a consultant. “Eagle Village was at that point needing to reinvent itself,” Prudhomme said. “We were facing some very difficult challenges, a combination of change at the state level, change in program level and our own issues that all came together.” Brought in as a third party to help bring about change, Prudhomme became the prime candidate to take the helm of the organization. “I felt very clearly this is what God was asking me to do,” she said. The past two years have been spent restructuring programs and realigning the organization’s goals to fit its mission. Through the organization has been reinvented under her leadership, Prudhomme said the mission of Eagle Village has not changed. “The mission of Eagle Village continues to stay the same. With God’s help and love, we serve children and families,” she said. “Our foundation is spiritual truth. The most important thing we can give our kids is a relationship with God, who loves and cares about them.” Today, the residential program shelters troubled youth from destructive influences and houses them with others in a facility for those who have been abused and neglected, or a facility for delinquents. In a structured environment, the children complete chores, do their own laundry and attend school at the Ashmun School, in partnership with the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District. The campus includes nature trails, a rock climbing wall, swimming pool, a school house and chapel on 700 acres of land in what resembles a summer camp. “Kids who have been bumped around are raw to the family system. Here, we take away the expectation of family and at the end of the day we give them a hope for family,” Prudhomme said.  
Though Ryan said the hardest part about being at Eagle Village was being away from competitive sports, and Izzy, 15, said being away from her mom was the most challenging part of her stay, troubled youth living free from the distractions of their old life is what Prudhomme considers a blessing in disguise. “They need this place away from the distractions where they are valued and treated with respect and honor,” Prudhomme said. “They come here and they have space and time to really think and reflect. Then they can reinvent themselves. “In many ways, we’re a cocoon. The caterpillar crawls in, we’re the cocoon and they leave here a beautiful butterfly.” Along with the desire to see her mother and friends more often, Izzy said she also can see she has grown from being away from what she knew. Coping with the tragic death of her two brothers, a mother addicted to drugs and a growing drug dependence of her own, the teen began living by herself as a 13-year-old. When the court system intervened, she was sent to four separate residential placements. She fled each of them to be with her mother, before coming to Eagle Village in June. “I have a past of partying and running just because I didn’t like to stay in one place. I lived on my own most of the time, because my mom was a methhead, so she just stayed with her abusive boyfriend,” Izzy said. “I ran from my last (residential facility) because I never liked staying in my placement. Then I got locked up, and then I came here (to Eagle Village).” When she was placed at Eagle Village, Izzy was at the “hand stage,” along with each teen who arrives at the center. As they show positive growth, start taking responsibility for their mistakes and stop bad behaviors, youth can petition staff members to advance to the “hand stage,” and finally the “heart stage.” Each stage comes with added benefits, such as wearing jeans instead of khaki pants and collared shirts, and being able to walk from their housing to school without an escort. Izzy said the desire to get her own clothes back, graduate from the program and live with her aunt motivated her to reach for the “heart stage,” which she achieved last month. She said the care and encouragement she has received at Eagle Village has surprised her. “At my last (placement), they just let you do whatever and they didn’t really care. Then at the next one, they didn’t really try to help you, they just told you what you were doing wrong, and that you needed to fix it,” Izzy said. “So (when I came here), I expected the same as every other residence that I’ve been to. But here, they actually do care here, and they actually do try to help you.” About half of the teens have an assigned mentor who they spend individual time with each week. Izzy’s mentor happens to be her house’s morning worker. “I like all my staff, but my favorite one would be Miss Becky. She’s my mentor and I’m able to talk to her about anything, like my past life and what I’ve been going through since I’ve been here,” Izzy said. “She just sits there and gives me pointers.” Becky, who has been working at Eagle Village for a year and a half, serves as a “house mom,” helping the 12 girls prepare for school in the morning, making sure they are dressed and helping them with personal needs. Aside from her normal 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, she comes in during her spare time to meet one-on-one with Izzy or take her out to dinner. The pair talk through her struggles and Becky encourages her progress. “Izzy has changed a lot,” Becky said. “She has had a few setbacks, but I’ve seen her come a long way. At first when she came it was, ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘Why?’ and now she understands why we (do certain activities). When she first got here she was more of a follower and she didn’t realize her potential, but now she’s more of a leader. She’s done really really well.” Though she was hired only one and a half years ago at Eagle Village, Becky’s history with the organization began years ago. As a child, she went through the Eagle Village program and was adopted by a couple who served as foster parents. “I’m very familiar with what these girls go through and how much they dislike some of the things,” she said. “I explain to them it’s all what you make it. It’s their choice whether they have a good experience or have a bad experience.”   HARD WORK While youth like Ryan and Izzy fight to overcome experiences and behavioral issues and become productive members of society, the organization’s 150 staff must be equipped to aid them in the process. As one of the largest employers in Osceola County, the Eagle Village administration puts careful consideration into the hiring process, taking each applicant on a tour to engage them in the purpose of the organization before offering them a position. “If you don’t have a passion for these kinds of kids, this will drive you crazy,” Prudhomme said. “This isn’t a job where you can just show up. You have to prepare yourself. You have to take care of yourself because you can’t come in empty and you can’t pick stuff up and take it home with you.” To ensure staff members can handle what they will witness and deal with during their employment, each person must complete various intensive trainings. Once each month, the organization hosts an all-staff training and a skill-based academy for those who have direct contact with youth. Each week, employees meet in teams to update one another, and they also call emergency meetings when necessary. With the added pressure of dealing with individuals who may lash out or exhibit harmful behavior to themselves or other, Prudhomme said the industry-wide average span of a childcare worker is less than two years. Many Eagle Village staff have exceeded the average. “We have many who have been here three, five, 10 years. I think it’s because of our spiritual focus,” she said. “We’re attracting people who go the extra mile and are not looking at this as a job, but looking at this as something God has created them to do and called them to do.”   DEALING WITH SETBACKS Though the center operates with spirit-driven motivation and staff striving for excellence, not all days with the youth are ones of advancement and progress. “We see miracles every day, but we also see the other side,” Prudhomme said. “One of our girls came to us as a cutter. Last night, unfortunately she was depressed and she re-injured. It’s hard to watch them go through that. She had gone 75 days without self-injury, which is the longest she’s ever gone.” In an incident of self-injury, the staff hold an emergency meeting to regroup, talk to one another and decide how to proceed with encouraging the child, or setting stricter boundaries to not make re-injury an option. “We see that side of things frequently,” Prudhomme said. “Our goal and our hope and our plan is to give them a picture of who they are instead of what they do. Our job is to stand in the gap during this difficult time in their lives and let them know they can do the hard work, figure out who they are and move forward.” Along with dealing with emotional setbacks from the poor behavioral choices of youth, Becky said it is more painful when parents of Eagle Village youth hurt their child by their own poor choices. She said the hardest struggle is seeing parents not be there for their children. Each parent can see their child once each month, and when parents don’t show up for scheduled visits and don’t notify Eagle Village staff, the let down can hurt a child who was making positive progress. “You can just tell they’re really affected and there’s nothing we can really do,” Becky said. “I try to reassure them that it’s not their fault.”   FAMILY-FOCUSED While many children come to Eagle Village after making bad decisions themselves, almost every youth in the program has been a victim of bad parenting. “The girls’ biggest challenge we have, is the disappointments that comes from a parent who can’t (be there) for them,” Becky said. “It’s a let down, but we’re here to help them put the pieces back together and move on.” To help parents struggling to teach and discipline their children, Eagle Village requires each family member of those in the residential program to attend a weekend family learning experience. “We are the only child care facility I know of that has a motel on our campus because we’re that committed to working with families. Even if a child is not going to go back and live with that family, that is still their family and we will help the child have healthy relationships,” Prudhomme said. “Very clearly we see the families who are willing to do the work, and we also unfortunately can see it pretty clearly the families who don’t. Families are not always able to move away from the substance abuse in order to prioritize their child, and that’s heartbreaking.” When the family of an Eagle Village teen is not willing to step up to the plate, there still are other options to allow a consistent, healthy home life for youth after leaving the center. Youth can be placed in local homes through the foster care program, which focuses on helping the biological parents earn the rights of parenting their child. “Today, foster care is really focused on working with the biological family and helping them to either step up to the plate, or move the child to a place where they can have long term stability,” Prudhomme said. Along with foster care services available for children, the organization’s adoption program seeks a “forever family” for children who have been neglected. Eagle Village has facilitated 24 adoptions already this year and 26 more children are waiting for homes. “Often our foster parents end up adopting those children or we find permanent homes for them so they can have security, stability and a forever family,” Prudhomme said. Along with the traditional residential program, the center also offers an intervention program for youth who may not have been abused or committed a crime, but exhibit behavioral issues that are too much of a challenge for those around them. “I get calls regularly from parents and grandparents saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with this child. I have a 15-year-old son in my basement and he won’t leave his video games and if I go to ask him to go to school or get him to do something, he is very aggressive. What do I do?’ and that’s where our intervention service comes in,” Prudhomme said. Parents bring a child to Eagle Village for an intervention experience, for around 30 days, with the goal of redirecting them so they don’t need further services.   CHALLENGES Like other organizations in the state, economic hardship has taken a toll on Eagle Village. “Because things have changed in the state, we are constantly having to deal with more difficult youth and have less resources to do so,” Prudhomme said. Along with the expense of traveling around 45,000 miles each month to transport youth, and not being reimbursed by the state, the organization also helps families pay for its intervention services. “Most of the families who call us don’t have the financial resources, so we scholarship those families at a level that’s appropriate to their financial need,” Prudhomme said. “Today, our area of greatest need is scholarship money for direct referrals.” Another challenge facing the organization is the growing need for updated facilities to facilitate family teaching sessions in a way that will benefit them as well as care for youth properly in residential housing. “We have a real challenge continuing to engage those families and maintaining the resources for what they need,” she said. “We have an aging facility. Most of our buildings were built 40 to 50 years ago. Our houses were built for two kids to share a room. Now, we have 12 kids sharing a bathroom. We really need to get our abuse/neglect kids into their own rooms.” PLANS TO EXPAND In its second year of an $8.5 million campaign to expand its facilities and services, the organization hopes to take advantage of its 700 acres of space to grow. “We are so blessed. Most organizations scramble to get resources and space. We have space,” Prudhomme said. “We really need to expand our four residential units, modify our bathrooms and convert our campus to natural gas.” Eagle Village also hopes to build an activity therapy center to continue to meet the needs of struggling youth by implementing new types of therapies. “Because of the abuse/neglect population and the need for expanding that experiential treatment, we know that art therapy or sensory therapy or music is incredibly powerful with our kids,” Prudhomme said. “Today, we don’t have any place on our campus where we can do that. “The next big challenge we have is to build a building and create centers in there for an art center, a music center and a sensory and physical, where we can teach them places and ways that they can express themselves without having to do it destructively.” Expanding its facilities is a way to maintain the outreach to youth like Izzy, who found hope and healing at Eagle Village. “The staff actually help you set goals to achieve, and go for higher goals,” Izzy said. “(My goals are) becoming drug free and not running. This is the first placement that I actually succeeded in.” For information on how to donate to Eagle Village, contact the center at (231) 832-2234 or visit .