Youth are a priority among Seventh-day Adventists. Their spiritual growth, physical and emotional health, educational opportunities, and personal relationships hold great importance. The church expends tremendous effort and resources to ensure that its children are provided safe and healthy environments in which to grow. But what about the youth with special needs, such as those recovering from childhood traumas and abuse that have resulted in such conditions as reactive attachment disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder? Or those who are exhibiting extreme negative behaviors resulting from various other causes? Can parents find answers and help from within the church?
The administrators and staff of the following three Adventist-run alternative-education facilities—Miracle Meadows School, Project Patch, and Advent Home and Learning Center—say yes.—Editors.
Miracle Meadows School
pending the night in a crack house with the police and FBI trailing him was not the Christmas Eve Josh Voigt had planned.
Voigt, barely 17, and a friend had stolen a car—an event that evolved into a weeklong crime spree. The FBI had been chasing the young men up and down the East Coast for days before finally catching up with them. Realizing that he had hit rock bottom, Voigt sent up a prayer promising God, “If You save me from this, I will turn back to You.”
When offered the choice of possibly serving 40 years to life for his crimes or returning to Miracle Meadows—a Seventh-day Adventist self-supporting middle and high school for at-risk boys and girls located in Salem, West Virginia—Josh knew the Lord had answered his prayer. So that day he determined to keep his
More than a decade later Voigt, now an Adventist pastor serving in the Chesapeake Conference, marks that experience as the turning point in his life—the beginning of his journey back to God.
“I began reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,” Voigt says, “and the school supported and facilitated the change process. They provided the tools I needed to turn my life around and helped to put me back on the right track.”
Miracle Meadows School, a boarding institution situated on 200 acres in the rolling Appalachian hills, was established by Gayle and Bill Clark in 1988. Its program is designed for children ages 8-17 who are experiencing such behavioral problems as dishonesty, defiance, school truancy, trouble with the law, poor social skills, destructive and aggressive tendencies, and alcohol and drug abuse. The staff currently is undergoing training in reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a condition in which infants and young children don’t establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers, typically as a result of neglect or abuse. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.1
“Most of the students here have experienced neglect, abuse, trauma, and loss before the age of 3,” Gayle Clark, who holds a master’s degree in nursing and is executive director of the school, explains. “That affects them neurologically. About 70 percent have been adopted, and the abuse occurred prior to the adoptions.”
Enrollment at Miracle Meadows fluctuates between 20 to 40 students. Elementary through secondary courses are taught using a self-paced mastery curriculum.
MIRACLE MEADOWS: The school is situated on 200 acres in Salem, West Virginia.
The state of West Virginia recognizes Miracle Meadows as a parochial alternative school, meeting state requirements for exemption K-12 schools.
Principal Patrick Johnson concedes that challenges exist there that other schools don’t routinely deal with, and that he had misgivings when he first arrived. His initial assessment of the students, however, has altered significantly.
“I said to myself, ‘What we have is a group of physically aggressive, rebellious students who don’t want to listen to authority.’ But as I looked into their situations, I’ve come to understand them better, and have grown closer to them as individuals,” Johnson notes. “I now see these kids as among the brightest you’ll find anywhere.”
Five teachers, most of whom hold master’s degrees, instruct students in grades 2 through 12.
Focus on Behavior
Although scholastics play a vital role at Miracle Meadows, a more intentional focus is given to behavior change and social adjustment.
“Many of our children have depression and anxiety; they’ve experienced a lot of trauma from both physical and emotional abuse,” says social-emotional learning coordinator Carmen Kleikamp. “We encourage and educate them on the effects of trauma, and why it’s hard for them to trust and to connect with the parents they now have.”
Kleikamp, a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in social work, interacts with the students in both personal and group sessions. Counseling sessions that include the parents focus on strengthening family relationships and exploring causes and alternatives regarding their at-risk behaviors.
Student life director Jerrilyn Fabien, who has a master’s degree in rehab counseling and has worked at Miracle Meadows for five years, admits that not every story ends well, but that “the more you understand the child’s background and the reasons they’re acting the way they do, the greater the success of the intervention process.”
Miracle Meadows is not only a Christian institution but also distinctly Seventh-day Adventist—and spirituality, staff members say, is their number-one priority.
“The staff here is committed to God and to the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” development director Bruce Atchison notes. “We strive to help the kids grow in their relationship with Jesus.”
Worship is held various times throughout the day, Atchison explains. Many of the students also praise the Lord in music by singing in the school choir, which performs throughout the U.S.
Is It Working?
Susan and Steve’s2
13-year-old adopted triplets are at Miracle Meadows because their behaviors “were out of control,” often resulting in police involvement, Susan explains. “We knew that if these behaviors continued, our children would end up in jail.” The children also had problems bonding with their adoptive parents. After about a year at the school, Susan sees significant progress.
“They now accept responsibility for their behaviors. They can identify their issues and know what they should do about the problems. They’re taught how to work and do a good job. They’ve also grown spiritually,” Susan says.
Susan believes that every child has a right to an education that meets their particular needs. “These kids require a Christ-centered, structured school setting that can work with these issues and not give up on them,” she says.
Conference tuition subsidies and local church worthy student funds generally are not available to those who attend schools not officially owned and operated by the Adventist Church. Susan’s local conference as well as fellow church members, however, do provide some tuition assistance, but not everyone receives such support. Nancy and Bill’s experience with their church family regarding their 16-year-old son John, whom they adopted at age 6, was very different.
STAFF-STUDENT BONDS: Staff strive to help the students grow spiritually, academically, and socially.
When John’s negative behaviors reached the point where his parents felt there was no option but to enroll him in alternative education, they asked their local church and conference for help—but no funds were provided.
The couple says they did receive emotional support from fellow church members, but sometimes, Bill notes, “keeping us in their prayers isn’t enough.”
“These broken kids appear forgotten,” Nancy adds. “They don’t feel valued or loved,
and they struggle with their spirituality. They need help and support from the church.”
Bill and Nancy’s appreciation for Miracle Meadows and the efforts they’re making for their son, however, is evident.
“They don’t give up on the kids here,” Bill says. “The heroic efforts that these folk make are extraordinary.”
Bonnie and Ron’s 14-year-old daughter, Trisha, has been at Miracle Meadows for about a year, and is on track to go home soon. When Trisha was born to Bonnie and Ron, they didn’t envision their daughter’s “downward spiral that turned into rebellion” in her early teen years.
“Her Adventist upbringing, the love of her parents, the love of her family, all authority—everything was called into question in her mind,” Ron says.
Although they tried other avenues of help, Bill and Nancy reached the point at which they felt no effective help was available. They then learned about Miracle Meadows.
“We praise the Lord that there’s a facility like this, connected with the church, so our child can continue to learn about the values and biblical teachings we believe in. . . . It’s helping us to regain our child.”
To learn more about Miracle Meadows School, go to www.miraclemeadows.org, or call 304-782-3630.
1 Mayo Clinic, “Reactive Attachment Disorder: Definition,” www.mayoclinic.com/health/reactive-attachment-disorder/DS00988. Accessed November 29, 2012.
2 Names of parents and students are pseudonyms.
Sandra Blackmer is Features Editor for
Adventist Review. This article was published February 28, 2013.