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Schools & Program Visits - Dec, 1999 Issue #64  

Eureka, Montana
Mary Alexine or Kenny Pannell, Directors

Visit Report by Carol Maxym
October 5 & 6, 1999

Turning into the driveway at Chrysalis feels very much like turning into the driveway at any family home in rural America. There is nothing to distinguish it from any “normal” family’s home—until you walk in the door and find four or five teenage girls sitting around a table finishing up their day’s schoolwork while another girl helps prepare dinner in the kitchen. In a few minutes, another girl will walk in, backpack filled with books. The atmosphere feels comfortable and homey, even if the girls are a bit reserved around a stranger. They look fine—dressed like teenage girls in 1999, except that they don’t have any “images” on display. When schoolwork is finished, they play cards, write letters, chat with each other until dinner is ready. Kenny Pannel, co-founder, excuses himself; he must go to a soccer team dinner as “father” of one of the Chrysalis girls who plays on the team. 

It feels very like a family, but, this isn’t really a family. This is a program for troubled girls ages 13-18 who need the special blend of petting, therapy, a stable home environment, and a gentle firmness to recover from the litany of pain, sorrow, untenable family situations, personal mistakes, and self- destructive behavior with which we are all too familiar. Kenny Pannell and Mary Alexine founded this program in August, 1998. Each is a master’s level licensed therapist; Mary is also a Certified Chemical dependency Counselor. To say that Mary and Kenny are dedicated to their work is a serious understatement! When I spoke with them at the IECA conference in Baltimore, it was the first time they had taken off together since founding the program. The girls are their work; helping girls to change, their mission. Mary and Kenny are experienced and gutsy, and, because the program is small (8 girls) they are willing and able to take a chance on a girl other programs would need to screen out. 

I had the opportunity to spend the late afternoon, evening, until the next morning with this very special almost-family. Dinner is a sit-down affair with everyone crowded around a large table, table manners observed: before the girls leave the table they must ask to be excused. I went with Mary to pick up one of the girls who is enrolled in the local public high school after a barbecue. I noticed that she was proud to introduce Mary to friends, and enjoyed listening to her tell about her evening. After consulting with the girls, I was allowed to listen in the “Circle,” their group therapy session. Afterwards we chatted, brainstormed for ideas for a Halloween costume for one of them, and talked about some far more serious matters, too. 

At Chrysalis the girls live together in a large and comfortable, but not extravagant, house. Everyone takes part in the chores and responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, gardening in the summer, and seeing that the dogs are or are not allowed inside. Schoolwork is accomplished through home schooling until Mary and Kenny trust a girl enough for her to be enrolled in the local public high school. While I was there the girls worked diligently on their schoolwork. I was lucky enough to hear Kenny discuss with one girl how to reconcile her Born-Again Christian faith with the chapter on evolution she was working on for her science class. Kenny was patient, clear, thoughtful, and not judgmental, offering different ways this young woman could use to think out the problem. She seemed calmed and focused by his explanation. 

Mary provides a quiet and grounded feeling, which girls who come to Chrysalis need. Her very presence is calming, but I have no doubt she can be as tough as is necessary, should the occasion arise. She listens patiently, speaks rather slowly and in a gentle voice. She provides a fine role model for the girls. 

Chrysalis has a special way of welcoming a new girl into the family, and I was allowed to listen. In the first group session of a girl’s stay, each of the other girls shares her own story, then asks the new arrival to share some of her story. The message is unmistakable: We all have our sorrow and guilt, but we cannot keep secrets if we are to live together and change our lives. 

There is a level system in place, but it is individualized. Group therapy happens three times a week, more often if needed. Individual therapy happens naturally, in the course of everyday work and play. 

Family therapy is a part of every family visit and also happens by telephone—especially when a girl is new in the program. Mary and Kenny are well aware that change is a process—different for every girl and family. They have the patience to let the process happen, but know where to draw a line when a girl is not working to change. 

The food is good and plentiful. The rooms are fine and homey. The scenery is magnificent, and the program uses it to their advantage. Mary and Kenny travel extensively with the girls, regardless of the season. In fact, they do pretty much everything with the girls, but there is no question of who is in control in this “family!”

The biggest drawback? All the beds are filled. I imagine it will always be difficult to find space at Chrysalis, but for the girl who does not present a run-away risk and who can benefit from the special combination of petting and strictness which Mary and Kenny so expertly provide, it will always be worth a call to see when a place may become available. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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