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The brawn of St. Marys

After more than four decades of fighting to save troubled children, Emma Dennis will step down from her role as executive director of Beaverton home for boys
by: Jonathan House, REACHING OUT — St. Mary’s Home for Boys Executive Director Emma Dennis chats with a student during her retirement reception Tuesday.

Emma Dennis found her calling as a champion for children.

For the past 46½ years, the Cedar Mill woman has devoted her life to helping troubled boys find hope and success at St. Mary's Home for Boys in Beaverton.

As its executive director for the past 22 years, she's also helped shape the future of the highly specialized, residential treatment facility as it continues its long tradition of providing programs designed to meet the evolving needs of its young charges.

Her leadership, dedication and passion for serving as a statewide advocate for children and families will be missed as she begins a new chapter in her life with her retirement.

'We have in Oregon a very special place to take care of troubled boys - to help them reunite with their families, finish school, be ready to work and lead happy, fulfilling lives,' said Janet Arenz, executive director of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs. 'St. Mary's is truly a very special place and it takes a very special person to run it and get the outcomes and successes Emma has earned.

'We've been lucky to have such a wonderful leader in such a unique and important place.'

Oregon Youth Authority Director Bob Jester, who served with Dennis on the youth authority's statewide advisory committee agreed.

'Emma is one of those spirits who when given a fork in the road will always pick to follow the path that is best for children and families,' Jester said.

Lynne Saxton, executive director of ChristieCare, considers Dennis an inspiration for leaders of nonprofit children's agencies across Oregon.

'She's been a guiding light for me,' Saxton said. 'She's very clear-visioned about what's right for children and families, and she's courageous as a leader.

'We're very sorry she's retiring, but we're excited for her. The work she has done in the last 40 years has made many children's lives throughout Oregon much more joyous than they otherwise would have been.'

Natural fit

Dennis moved from North Dakota to Beaverton after graduating from high school in August 1959 to join the Franciscan Missionary Sisters.

'I wanted to go to South America and work in missions but I never did,' she said.

Instead, after a couple of years with the missionary group, Dennis left the order and found her place working with 34 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade boys as a 'house parent' in one of the cottages at St. Mary's Home for Boys in the early 1960s.

'It felt natural for me to work with the boys,' said Dennis, who grew up on a cattle and wheat farm with seven older brothers. 'I had been living with boys all my life and was never intimidated by them.

'When I started working here, I truly enjoyed it because of the absolute sincerity of these children. You could see that their hearts had been broken and that they needed some place to live.'

As a group worker, Dennis worked directly with the children and became part of their lives and their family.

In her early years, St. Mary's was a self-sufficient campus with its own dairy farm, orchards, garden, cattle and hogs for meat. From its humble beginnings as an orphanage more than 116 years ago, it had transitioned in the 1960s into a home for boys ages 6 to 14.

'We had children who had nobody and those with behavioral and emotional challenges because they had already been through six or seven placements,' Dennis said. 'These children have a long history of failure, have had their hearts ripped out of their chests many times and don't do well in group home or foster care settings.

'They all have great potential. You just have to find and tap into it. Hopefully, we're doing that well here.'

Passionate leader

Dennis, who earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Marylhurst College and a master's in psychology and criminal justice from the University of Portland, worked in the cottages for nine years when she was asked in 1970 to step into a supervisory role.

As an administrator, she proved to be an effective leader prompting her promotion as assistant director and later executive director in 1986.

It was during the 1980s that St. Mary's began serving and caring for older boys ages 11 to 18.

'We've had a lot of program changes as the needs of our children changed,' Dennis said.

The challenge of finding effective ways to provide the boys with individualized, therapeutic services and guidance to help them find success became a passion for Dennis.

'I've been here so long because I've always had a job that was exciting, required me to develop new skills and was very rewarding,' she said. 'I've enjoyed being with a wonderful group of people who support each other.'

During her tenure, Dennis worked closely with St. Mary's clinical director, Dr. Loyal Marsh, to implement and develop new treatment programs and evidence-based services.

'We worked together for 40 years and he became my mentor in so many different ways,' she said. 'He was who I would look to when thinking about the direction to take St. Mary's.

'He was the brains, and I was the brawn.'

Marsh admired Dennis' ability to bring progressive changes to the campus.

'She listened well,' he said. 'She's one of the best decision makers I've known in my life. She made decisions based on evidence, history and what was in the best interest of the children and the program.'

In the mid-1990s, that meant undertaking a $14 million capital campaign to build a new campus and renovate one of its old buildings.

As Dennis tours today's campus, her smile lights up her face as she points out the facilities she helped create for St. Mary's young men.

'We needed a new facility to meet their needs,' she explained. 'It feels more like a home instead of an institution.

'I'm proud of the new campus - getting all this accomplished was a miracle.'

Safe haven

Those who have worked with Dennis on statewide committees to provide social and mental health services to children across Oregon say they are not surprised by the success she's had in creating a safe haven for young men to transform their lives.

'Her leadership has modernized her facility,' said Chris Krenk, president and chief executive officer of Albertina Kerr Centers. 'Ultimately, her legacy will be the thousands of kids who have gone through St. Mary's and who have better lives because of their experience there.'

Beaverton Police Chief David Bishop agreed.

'She's devoted most of her life to working at the boys home and helping the boys,' said Bishop, who serves as chairman of the St. Mary's Home for Boys board. 'There's no where else for those boys to go and sometimes it's the only family they've ever had.'

Her advocacy work for children does not end on the St. Mary's campus, others said.

Dennis is past president of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs board and served on its board of directors for many years.

The alliance is a statewide nonprofit association of 34 children's agencies that provide more than 250 programs throughout Oregon, touching the lives of more than 78,000 children and youth each year.

Dennis also participated on countless task forces and committees focused on caring for Oregon children.

'I consider her a business barracuda,' Arenz said. 'She's smart and a visionary for running an agency, but her heart is focused on the kids.'

Dennis is the 2002 recipient of the Alliance Diamond Award, the highest honor her peers can pay her in recognizing her passion and leadership.

'She's a very wise person,' Krenk added. 'She always impressed me as a person who does her homework and has a good grasp on the child welfare industry.

'She's been an advocate in Washington County and statewide for working together on children's issues.'

Although Dennis is stepping down from her post at St. Mary's, she plans to continue working with children through volunteer work in the community.

'There are so many needs here locally,' Dennis said. 'My dream is to do some volunteer work.'

She also plans to set aside time to travel to Germany, Russia and Africa.

She admits she's going to miss being part of the St. Mary's team.

'I'm going to miss the staff, the kids and the excitement,' she said. 'Great things happen with children here every day.'

And if her belief of 'once a St. Mary's boy, always a St. Mary's boy' can be applied to those who have served as mentor, role model, parent and guidance counselor, then Dennis will always be welcomed home for visits with her extended St. Mary's family.