Alternative Adventist Education
Help and hope for at-risk youth
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
Spending 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 promise to God.
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: The school is situated on 200 acres in Salem, West Virginia.
STAFF-STUDENT BONDS: Staff strive to help the students grow spiritually, academically, and socially.
PRAISING THE LORD: The Miracle Meadows School choir performs throughout the U.S.
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. 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.
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. n
- Mayo Clinic, “Reactive Attachment Disorder: Definition,” www.mayoclinic.com/health/reactive-attach ment-disorder/DS00988. Accessed November 29, 2012.
- Names of parents and students are pseudonyms.
By Becky St. Clair
Irving hated authority. As a seventh grader, he was defiant, depressed, unfocused, and suicidal. He didn’t care about school or learning, nearly failing all his classes. Summer classes allowed him to continue into eighth grade.
“My life was awful,” he recalls. “I hated my parents for even bringing me into the world, and I told them on a regular basis how I felt.”
Although it happened when he was 7 years old, Irving blamed himself for his parents’ separation, and he struggled with accepting criticism, even when it was constructive. “I felt the world was against me and that my life wasn’t worth living,” he says.
Then his good friend and classmate died.
“That sent me over the edge,” Irving says. “I completely gave up.”
When Irving failed the eighth grade, his mom searched for options and discovered Project Patch, a residential behavioral treatment facility in the mountains of Idaho.
Tackling the Tough Stuff
Project Patch is a Christian nonprofit organization focused on helping hurting teens and building stronger families. It was founded in 1984 when Tom Sanford, an Adventist pastor, became overwhelmed by the needs of hurting teens and felt called to care specifically for them. Tom and his wife, Bonnie, started a foster-care placement program, which developed into Project Patch Youth Ranch for youth ages 12-17. It’s located on 170 forested acres about an hour north of Boise, Idaho. Since then, Project Patch has helped nearly 1,000 teens like Irving find direction, respect for themselves and others, healthy ways to handle life’s challenges, and, most important, a relationship with Christ.
“The staff really worked with me on self-worth through God,” Irving says. “It’s because of Him that I’m worth something, and that core concept helped me realize I need to rely on His strength and not my own.”
Each teen at the ranch is assigned to one of Patch’s five therapists, all of whom have master’s degrees in therapy-related fields. In both one-on-one and group settings, counselors help them deal with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, divorce, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), terminal illness, loss of a family member or friend, rape, and innumerable other traumas.
During Parent Weekends, ranch therapists equip parents to be more effective with their kids. They see the positive changes in their child, participate with their teens in trust- and communication-building activities, and attend workshops where they learn the basic skills their children are learning.
“The parents we work with are doing their best to help their children,” says Chuck Hagele, Patch executive director. “We’ve found great success in teaching parents how emotions work and specific skills to help their teens.”
Every Moment Counts
Patch is a safe, high-quality, and effective program based on the Bible. Very few treatment programs are both accredited by the Joint Commission and provide solid biblical discipleship. Project Patch is also licensed and accredited by the Idaho Department of Education, the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Utilizing individualized coursework to accommodate each student’s ability and experience, the licensed education program at Patch enables students to keep up with or catch up to their school grade level and, when necessary, attain their GED. The school’s personalized program propels students to succeed where they have failed in other environments.
“Patch uses every moment for teaching,” Hagele says. “Whether they’re playing, working, in a therapy session, or doing community service, the kids are learning skills they need to create a positive future for themselves.”
In addition to regular recreation, Patch teens complete daily chores and participate in the ranch’s community service program to learn responsibility, the importance of helping others, and how to be part of a local community.
After an average of 14 months at the ranch, returning home is not easy. Teens come into the Patch program angry, hurt, bitter, and confused. They leave confident, determined, and more mature than they arrived. The transition is still difficult, but Patch equips teens with the skills they need to handle it.
“When I got home, I had to find out who I was, what I believed, and how I could have a meaningful relationship with God for myself,” Irving says. “I gained wonderfully helpful tools at Patch, but it was still a challenge.”
Irving completed high school and in 2011 graduated from Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, with a degree in industrial design. Currently he works for a custom-cabinet shop, designing and building cabinets for both commercial and residential clients.
Strengthening Families and Communities
In 2003 Patch received a donation of 500 acres of wooded property near Goldendale, Washington. Built by Maranatha International and other volunteers, the Project Patch Family Life and Conference Center, home to the Family Experience program, opened in 2011, providing a resortlike environment for families to learn to thrive despite their challenges. Here, over a long weekend, families enjoy experiences such as a ropes course, crafts, and hiking, and together they learn about facing and weathering challenges.
“Serving teens and families doesn’t stop at home,” says Hagele. “To truly help kids thrive, we need churches and the community at large to support the families and teens we work with individually.”
To this end, Patch has developed a seminar and workshop program addressing issues such as parenting, raising grandchildren, technology in the home, outreach to youth in the church, and more. Presenting information gleaned from more than 24 years of working with teens and families, Patch reachES out to community and church members, providing educational mate-rials and other helpful resources.
To learn more about Project Patch, visit projectpatch.org, call 360-690-8495, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Becky St. Clair is director of communication for Project Patch.
By Blondel E. Senior
Jimmy Hawkins* was 6 when his parents separated. His dad left suddenly and seldom contacted him. Jimmy’s knowledge of his father came from old photos and hearing his mother describe how abusive he was.
Years later Jimmy began blaming his mother for breaking up their home. He became defiant, aggressive, and controlling. His mother was afraid of him. He stayed up late, and then overslept and missed school. His grades dropped from B’s to F’s.
“I was losing Jimmy,” Mrs. Hawkins admits. “And he was a negative influence on his little sister.”
Jimmy was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and placed on medication that doctors thought would help; instead, Jimmy became more unmanageable. Then one of his teachers told Mrs. Hawkins about Advent Home Learning Center and its program for boys with ADHD and behavior problems. Jimmy was enrolled.
Jimmy, now 14, has spent 13 months at Advent Home and is slowly making progress. He works off pent-up anger running on the lap field, weeding and watering plants, and playing basketball. Counselors are teaching him ways to deal responsibly with his anger and to resolve conflicts with others in healthy ways.
At school the teachers are caring but firm, and Jimmy is taught to accept consequences for negative behaviors. In the dorm he’s learning habits of tidiness and organization, as well as how to get along well with others and be part of a team.
His mother is noticing the change; she says he is now calmer and more respectful. He also wants to attend an Adventist boarding academy when he leaves Advent Home.
Jimmy is turning around.
Twenty-eight years ago Advent Home—situated on 225 acres of rolling hills and forests in Calhoun, Tennessee—began ministering to delinquent teen boys ages 12 to 18, offering them and their families healing and restoration through a more healthful lifestyle and a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. The various methods used became part of the home’s Maturation Therapy Program. In 1995 the home transitioned to serving at-risk boys who had been diagnosed with ADHD. Boys with ADHD have emotional problems and frequently “act out” by expressing negative attitudes and behaviors. They don’t adjust well to traditional classroom or home settings. Their hyperactivity and impulsiveness—often misunderstood—frequently result in their dismissal from public or church schools.
Like Jimmy, many ADHD students have out-of-control anger problems. Although academically bright, they generally are one to four years behind in grade levels. They develop such behaviors as stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, avoiding close family relations, shoplifting, experimenting with smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and running away from home.
These boys are at risk of failing not only in school but also in life, and need serious interventions to reverse their downward spiral. Their inadequate academic skills, poor interpersonal skills, broken family relations, poor work skills, and determination to drop out of school before graduating reveal their lack of readiness for the future.
Most of the students at Advent Home are Seventh-day Adventists, but about 20 percent are not. There is a wide range of ethnicity among the students, who come from many regions of the United States and other countries as well.
Advent Home is equipped to house 32 boys. When they arrive, they encounter a minimum-distraction environment in a rural setting with no TV or other electronic equipment, a vegetarian diet, and a highly regulated schedule. They spend time working and playing outside, and receive both formal and informal counseling in one-on-one and group sessions. They are encouraged to talk freely during these sessions, openly expressing their feelings. As their bodies, minds, and hearts begin to heal, some discover Jesus, and their lives are transformed.
Family Training and Reconciliation
Learning respect for parents and other loved ones is a priority at Advent Home as well as an important aspect of the healing and growth process. Family forums take place each quarter on campus. During these special weekends, students and their families come together for worship, spiritual renewal, testimonies, and family training seminars in which they discuss family issues, ask forgiveness when needed, and are emotionally reunited.
Spiritual activities and the importance of a growing relationship with God are also emphasized at Advent Home, and baptisms often result.
A Lasting Difference
In the past five years Advent Home
has ministered to more than 318 at-risk students. Since 2009 the teachers and counselors have assisted approximately 25 students to enroll in Adventist boarding schools. Some students have gone on to become college and graduate students, as well as career professionals. Others entered other vocations. The Lord has richly blessed Advent Home with successful intervention in the lives of many families.
To learn more about Advent Home, call 423-336-5052 or visit www.adventhome.org. n
* a pseudonym
Blondel E. Senior, Ph.D., is founder/director of Advent Home Learning Center. Barbara Graham, with Advent Home’s Development Office, also contributed to this article.