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A place to call home

Grant helps boys overcome tragic pasts at long-running facility
by: Jaime Valdez FRESH START — Jered, 14, is one of many boys from troubled backgrounds who has found St. Mary's Home for Boys an inspiring place to learn and grow.

Despite the air of permanence in its name, St. Mary's Home for Boys - for the deeply troubled young men who find themselves without grounding and life guidance - provides only a temporary refuge.

While only a brief detour on a boy's unfairly rocky road of life, the Beaverton facility provides a level of caring, and opportunities for education, mentorship and human bonding, that is hard to leave behind.

'When they arrive, they don't want to be here,' says Lynda Walker, St. Mary's director of community relations and development. 'But when it's time to leave, they'll try to sabotage their graduation so they can stay.'

After 39 years helping countless boys - described as among Oregon's 'most damaged, disturbed and troubled' - find a more hopeful path, Walker should know.

'These are great kids who have had horrible lives,' she says. 'We give them the tools to go back to public school and succeed in life.'

A recent $10,000 grant from the RBC Wealth Management Foundation for the 'Counselor in the Classroom' program is intended to help the facility on Southwest Tualatin Valley Highway do just that. Made possible through Portland-area RBC executives Dick Sorenson and Tom Gilbertson, the grant fits with the RBC Foundation's mission to focus on human services and youth education.

'We're thrilled to receive this funding,' Walker says. 'St. Mary's exists due to our partnerships with companies like RBC Wealth Management that remain committed to the boys' home regardless of the economic climate.'

Back to class

'Counselor in the Classroom' doesn't necessarily place a counselor in each and every class of St. Mary's school, but increases the availability of psychological and guidance counselors for the home's 67 residential and 40 'day treatment' clients.

Started earlier this year, the program is already paying significant dividends with a marked reduction in students being pulled from classrooms for disruptive behavior.

'Counselors meet with boys to discuss what is frustrating them,' says St. Mary's Executive Director Francis Maher. 'We saw a 36 percent reduction in classroom removals in the first quarter.'

Frustrations manifest themselves most commonly through 'swearing, disruptions and impeding the education of other clients,' he adds.

'They take a few minutes with the counselor to go over the things that might be causing them stress. It's not always related to academics.'

Light in the darkness

The 10- to 18-year-old clients at St. Mary's often come from families for which the term 'broken' doesn't begin to describe the level of dysfunction, neglect and abuse.

'The typical boy here, his mom is a prostitute and his dad is in prison,' Walker says, matter-of-factly. 'They come to us living in cars, under bridges. They don't know hygiene. Their IQs are low because their mom was using drugs.'

Despite the stacked odds, Walker, showing off photos of what she refers to as 'little guys,' marvels at the boys' strides and successes, regardless of how great or small.

'This little guy was used by his parents as a drug runner,' she says of one 10-year-old. 'He's doing well in our program.'

Starting as an orphanage in 1889, St. Mary's changed from a private facility to a state-funded residential treatment center in 1968.

'The original mission was to help children in need,' Walker says. 'That's still the mission.'

A capital campaign in 2003 went a long way toward expanding and modernizing the attractive 27-acre campus. Donations from the Ford family and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made possible new classroom buildings, activities and athletics facilities, including a state-of-the-art gymnasium and indoor swimming pool and expanded living quarters.

'Kids all have their own private rooms,' Walker says. 'They're only (for) sleep.'

Positive reinforcement

Actually, boys may improve the amenities of their living quarters based on treatment progress and positive behavior. Measured each day with behavioral report cards as well as 90-day case reviews, successes can lead to privileges and luxuries such as clock radios and TVs in their rooms.

Outside the cafeteria, the 'Kids' Store' offers all manner of nifty souvenirs and trinkets that clients can choose from based on how many points they earn for improvement and initiative.

'There's an extensive token-economy program,' Walker says.

The average stay for a client is 16 months. 'Graduation' is achieved not at the completion of a grade level, but 'when they've met their goals.'

'Many boys have been running from issues for 14 years,' Walker adds. 'This is the first time they've been in a safe and secure environment where they can begin the process of healing and working on their issues. The objective is treatment. If it takes six months, it takes six months, if it takes a year, it takes a year.'

Getting better

Strolling across campus with case manager Tim Reynolds, Jered, a bright-eyed and articulate 14-year-old, sounds grateful for the guidance he's received at St. Mary's.

'They've given me a lot of opportunities to work on making my life better,' he says, noting he's received training in the food-service field. 'I hope to be a waiter - to start out.'

George Kollinzas, who became principal of St. Mary's school 10 years ago, says he appreciates the collaborative nature of the education and counseling programs at the facility.

'It's a very powerful model, the collaboration we have, with St. Mary's (counselors) focused on treatment and (us) on education,' says Kollinzas, a 25-year veteran of the Beaverton School District. 'There are very strong experts on either side.'

Walker, who was persuaded by a former St. Mary's director to take a full-time job there, says she has no regrets in choosing the boys' home over her intended workplace target: Fred Meyer.

'I've done everything here from answer the phones to chair the board,' she says. 'These kids do get into your heart.'