September 26, 2002 - Portsmouth Herald: Honduras RPCV Mark Sipple guides troubled teens
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September 26, 2002 - Portsmouth Herald: Honduras RPCV Mark Sipple guides troubled teens
Honduras RPCV Mark Sipple guides troubled teens
Read and comment on this story from the Portsmouth Herald on Honduras RPCV Mark Sipple who guides troubled teens at the the Malley Farm Boys Home at:
Guiding troubled teens*
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Guiding troubled teens
By Gina Carbone
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the Malley Farm Boys Home and the Chase Home For Children, two Seacoast homes for troubled adolescents. Next week read stories from former residents on what life was like at the children's homes and how it affects their lives today.
Mark Sipple knows life is precious. It’s short. And as much as he’d like to share only rosy success stories after 20 years working at the Malley Farm Boys Home in Somersworth, he knows reality is more complicated than idealism. He learned this slowly and sometimes painfully and the emotions of decades past are obviously still fresh as he chokes up speaking of the kids he truly cares for.
"Out of my first group here, I still keep in regular contact with one-third of that group, one-third I’ve lost touch with and one-third are no longer with us."
Lost in drugs, alcohol, accidents, illness, giving up.
"The years between 18 and 25 can be one of the loneliest times," Sipple says quietly. "You can feel like so much of an outcast; you take risks you shouldn’t take. As times have gone on, I’ve been able to have more patience and tolerance with kids. I had to learn all this stuff. I was a part of what I see now as the problem: If you can’t handle them, you send them away."
He takes a moment before sharing one of his most painful memories, of a boy who "walked to the beat of his own drum" and just couldn’t fit in at the home. He was sent up to an expensive, well-respected treatment facility in northern Maine, but there he would find no solace. Sipple later learned that the boy succumbed to his loneliness and anger and committed suicide.
To Sipple, now executive director of the boys’ home, the message of this and other losses is deceptively simple: Learning to tolerate and appreciate different members of society, those people who simply find their own path, whether the world agrees with it.
For the past 23 years, Sipple and the Malley Farm staff have quietly worked to develop their mission to help troubled young men. Only now are they coming into the public eye with the hope of fostering even greater acceptance from the community and laying groundwork for the next generation.
One of their models for the future is the venerable Chase Home for Children of Portsmouth, which has been a home for adolescent boys and girls since 1877.
Though Malley and Chase are only two of the many New Hampshire homes offering hope to children, visiting their facilities sheds light on a network of often cast-off youth living right in our back yards.
"Everyone has a purpose in life. For some people it’s a lot harder to find a place," Sipple says. "Some people, if they don’t have the right social graces, get written off. I think we could do a better job."
A long and winding road leads to the modern-day Malley Farm, in more ways than one. Established in 1979 as the Somersworth Group Home, Malley Farm Boys Home houses boys from 12 to 18 years of age in a charming white 1890 farmhouse set among the fields of Malley Farm, which was conveyed to the city of Somersworth, which in return made a portion of the land available to the boys’ home.
Malley Farm provides three housing opportunities, which serve up to 22 male adolescents: 12 are housed in the main farmhouse and regular program; five in their transition house, which eases the family reunification process and teaches independent living skills, and five are housed on a short-term basis in the emergency shelter.
Residents, who average between 15 and 17 years old, come from all backgrounds and family situations throughout the Seacoast area and greater New Hampshire and are referred there by family, guardians or the courts. At any given time Sipple says there are 12-15 referrals waiting for an open room. The average stay for their residents is 14 months. The average number of homes these kids end up living in is at least eight.
"I’ve had kids who’ve been in placement with other people from when they were 4 to 18," Sipple says.
His plan is to have this be the last home they live in before they are ready to go back to their families (the ideal situation) or go out on their own whether to the military, college or the work force.
The boys have a set routine, getting up for breakfast at a certain time, going off to school and jobs or sports practices, having dinner together and performing their individual chores.
Roommates live together in pairs in the five bedrooms upstairs. An old-fashioned family home updated for modern tastes, the boys’ rooms are decorated with Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park and New England Patriots cheerleaders posters as music filters down the wooden staircase into the small parlor and Sipple’s office.
While roommates don’t always get along, and scuffles, holes in walls and outbursts are not unheard of, Sipple says they have a "really positive peer group" right now. After passing Sipple upstairs, one boy proudly tells him he just quit smoking.
"That’s going to make your life a whole lot easier," Sipple replies.
A former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Sipple came to Malley Farm after a friend involved in the fledgling program asked if he’d help out.
"I came up thinking I’d be here for a year," Sipple says.
More than 20 years later, Sipple is making it his job to bring the home into the public consciousness. Since 1979 it has generally kept a low profile, finding its niche and working to become an independent unit. Now a whole generation of graduates are adults in their late 30s, many with children of their own, who come back to Malley Farm to thank the staff for support they didn’t appreciate at the time.
"For 20 years we’ve been a quiet little farm house doing our own thing," Sipple says. "I think we’re ready for the next level."
This includes a name-changing ceremony (held on Aug. 1) to officially establish itself as Malley Farm Boys Home, planning more community outreach and trying to entice volunteer support from warm-hearted locals.
Along with program director Jeannine Ryan and staff, Sipple’s long-term plan is to prepare for when the home is 100 years old - independent and strong.
"We’ve paid our dues, we’ve been through just about everything you can go through. Success stories and support give us the confidence to weather storms."
Malley Farm is just one of many adolescent homes in New Hampshire working toward the same end: helping at-risk kids change their own lives for the better. Other homes include Our House (for neglected and abused girls ages 12-18) in Dover; St. Charles Children’s Home in Rochester; Odyssey House in Hampton; Serenity House in Portsmouth; and the Chase Home for Children, a role model for where the Malley Farm home would like to be when they reach 100 years.
Since 1877, the Chase Home has aimed to provide a haven for young people in need. Beginning as an orphanage for destitute children, the Chase Home has evolved through the years to meet the changing needs of children and their families. Today, it serves up to 25 young men and women between the ages of 12 and 19 who are unable to live at home for various reasons including discipline issues, drugs and alcohol abuse and neglect.
Like Malley Farm, Chase Home is considered an intermediate level home. Levels range from general level to intermediate to secure and "lock-up" facilities.
Located on about 26 wooded acres just a mile away from downtown Portsmouth, the Chase Home’s impressive brick structure with white columns, gardens and circular drive-up appear like the abode of a wealthy homeowner. The grounds are freshly landscaped by a group of volunteers from Timberland in Stratham who come to the home on a bi-weekly basis to do grounds work, tutoring and mentoring.
Kathleen McDermott, the Chase Home’s new executive director, gives a tour of the building with program director Nathanie* Than" Meyer. The house is quiet as the 16 residents are now at school. Inside, flowered wallpaper with blue trim lines the walls of the center building, which houses the kitchen, dining area and offices. Photos from team-building exercises and group trips to places like Mount Washington line the walls. In the basement, a media room with a huge donated television set is next door to a large gymnasium.
The boys and girls live in separate dorms - the boys downstairs, the girls upstairs - and also eat at separate times, but otherwise have contact with each other in group outings and other events.
They don’t have a lot of free time, as a chart outside the downstairs office illustrates. Days are heavily scheduled between meals, school, chores, activities, sports and sessions with their individual therapists as well as with any family therapists they may have.
The average stay of kids is between 9 and 12 months, though Meyer says they’ve had kids stay as little as three days and as long as three years.
"Some of the kids are pretty system savvy. For others this is their first place," he says.
All of the residents have their own private bedrooms with a residential counselor staying at the end of the hall. While the rooms are mostly neat, the house is clean and quiet, and the staff are amiable, that doesn’t mean everything is always sunshine.
"Put nine adolescents on the same floor and you have some issues," says Meyer, a Chase Home staffer for four years.
They’ve had their fights. Their runaways. Their kids who go home and end up having to come back. Still, one shouldn’t take a job like this without some measure of optimism and positive energy, which Meyer displays when speaking of the kids.
"I don’t think I’ve come across a more accepting group of boys and girls, whether it be different styles or tastes."
Though Meyer half-jokingly comments that the boys’ rooms smell worse than the girls’, lately the boys have been cleaner and in general the boys have been better behaved than the girls in the past few years, speculating that it might be from the acute problems facing female adolescents.
When Meyer came to the Chase Home four years ago he and a few other staff members decided to change the reward system from punitive-based to strength-building.
Each resident has an individual achievement sheet, which gives him or her privileges based on a system where points are earned for positive behavior. There are four phases of development: orientation, integration, commitment and self-reliance.
By the commitment stage, kids can get a job in the community and go into town unsupervised. Usually this takes at least three months, Meyer says. Right now only one boy is in the highest self-reliance phase, which gives him his own suite with a bathroom, his own schedule and his own cell phone, though he still needs a level of supervision and they always need to know where he is.
Meyer is quick to humanize the system by emphasizing that the goal is to create a positive, structured environment, not to create programmed kids walking around like automatons.
"We can’t change the kids. They change themselves - we just show them the way."
And when someone’s life starts to show the signs of turning around, there’s no better feeling in the world.
"I walk out of the building about three feet off the ground because the light bulb finally went off," Meyer says. "I may have said something 1,000 times, but on the 1,001st time something fundamental happens. Some switch has finally been thrown."
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