Oh How Times Have Changed. Or Have They?

Authored by: Denise Pilz, Executive Director

Norris turned 100 this year, which is a great accomplishment for a non-profit agency. Although a milestone year, it is important to continually revisit the history of any agency’s service not only to see how the agency has evolved, but whether we are smarter about how we deliver that service. How much more have we learned about helping youth and families from 100 years ago? Are the needs for youth and families similar or have they drastically changed? Are our goals for serving the same? Are there new challenges that have presented themselves over time? Let’s dig in and find out answers to all of these questions and more.

The Norris Farm and Camp for Boys was founded on October 25,1917 by Daniel (Niel) Wells Norris. During its formative years – 1917 through the early 1930’s – Niel provided a haven for boys that could either not return home due to the loss of their parents or boys that were on probation for delinquent acts such as stealing or destroying property. Niel’s main charge was to provide the boys on his farm a moral compass, a work ethic, an appreciation for education and recreation, good citizenship, independence and all the tools needed to pursue a healthy and productive life. One hundred years later, not much has changed in terms of our goals for the boys we serve today. The mission of Norris is to strengthen youth and families by providing a circle of care, a continuum of education, support and treatment availability.

The Norris campus is almost 900 acres of living and nature space that provides the environment for youth to overcome past experiences that challenge them personally, morally and in building healthy relationships with others. How we help youth overcome these challenges and learn more about themselves may be very different – more robust treatment options and access to psychiatric services – but our goals to teach boys the tools needed to pursue a healthy and productive life when they leave Norris is still the same. In fact, the Norris Learning Academy’s educational model creates learning experiences on four dimensions of learning, three of which are Employability, Wellness and Citizenship. Hmmmm, maybe Niel was onto a practice philosophy that has been sustainable for 100+ years!

What we have seen change over time is the complexity of the needs and challenges not only for the youth but also their families. One hundred years ago, stealing lightbulbs from a car or swearing in the streets were considered delinquent acts. Today, we are grappling with youth drug addiction, extreme poverty, generational trauma, armed robberies, and even homicide. Our approach at Norris has evolved from teaching youth how to be good dairy farmers to building resilience from and a self-awareness of past trauma that if gone untreated, will have a long-term negative impact on their overall functioning. What makes Norris as unique today as it was 100 years ago is the collaborative blend of treatment and education that can occur on one campus. Youth at Norris can focus not only on addressing past trauma, but also directing their own educational experience to be meaningful for their future.

Almost half the youth that lived at Norris during its first years of service lived here for three, five or even more than ten years. These long lengths of stay provided richer opportunities for youth to engage in learning and job skill training, resulting in longer-term impact. Today, the average stay of most youth at Norris is about six to nine months due to the fact that residential treatment has evolved to be a more short-term, stabilization model where the ultimate goal is to have youth return to the community as soon as possible. Shorter-term stays do provide a challenge for residential treatment programs to make a life-long impact, which is why it is crucial to engage the family while the child is here. The biggest shift in practice that I see from 100 years ago is that critical work with the entire family. In 1917, Niel was solely focused on the youth and it was reported he often saw the parents as a barrier to the youth’s success or even the cause of their behavior. What we know in 2017 is that a child’s connection to their parent and family is something that should be respected and preserved whenever possible because the families that can heal together, will be the most successful in the long run. Although youth-focused treatment and education has its place in residential care, the biggest strides are made when we can impact mothers, fathers, siblings, etc. – the entire family that will surround and support the youth once he returns home. Norris gives children and families the safety to tell and understand their story, the impact it has and gives them hope that the possibilities for the future are endless.