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Schools & Program Visits - Sept, 2001 Issue #85 

The Chrysalis School and The Home-Based Program
Eureka, Montana
406.889.5577
Mary Alexine, M.A. and Kenny Pannell, M.Ed.

[A Visit Report on July 13, by Loi Eberle]

I suppose there’s always the fear that once a well-kept secret is revealed, one loses the ability to offer the perfect place for someone who needs nurturing, counseling, and academic support in a homelike environment. Such is the risk I take, I suspect, when describing Chrysalis, a home-based program for adolescent girls. Having always heard glowing reports about this small program that is located in Eureka, Montana, my experience is that the reports must be true because it is always full!

Chrysalis opened in 1998. It was founded and is operated by husband and wife team, Mary Alexine and Kenny Parnell, who are both masters level licensed therapists with twenty-five years of combined counseling experience with adolescents in outpatient, hospital and residential therapeutic school settings. It has been operating out of their beautiful log home on 8 acres, surrounded by large gardens with room for their horses. Not only does it feel like a tastefully decorated and well kept home environment, the impression I got from the girls was that they felt nurtured and comfortable in their home- away-from-home.

Mary and Kenny have created a program with a life style that embraces their personnel values of healthy diet, political, social and ecological awareness, creativity and spiritual growth, and their respect for diversity. Personal responsibility and healthy risk- taking are key aspects of their program, as demonstrated by life at Chrysalis, which consists of daily workouts, academics, chores, and outdoor adventure in their scenic location, one hour from Glacier Park. Direct communication and honesty are a part of all the activities. The residents are also required to keep a journal, which is shared with leadership, and occasionally discussed in group or individually, along with other cognitive assignments. They also have a level system, which is described as “a means of acknowledging the developmental and behavioral progress girls make throughout their stay.”

Starting this fall, in response to the large demand for this well respected program, Kenny and Mary have been able to acquire property to expand. This has enabled them to actualize their dream of creating a self-contained school, as well as have a separate residence for older adolescent girls. The residence will be in a 5000 square foot home on beautiful Carpenter Lake, just across the road from the Chrysalis Home-based Program. The classroom is in a separate building located close by on the same 15-acre property that overlooks the lake.

Up until now, the girls have been doing their academic work via correspondence using accredited curriculum from either Brigham Young University or North Dakota’s Division of Independent Study, both accredited institutions. As the girls progressed in their emotional growth work, some of them would then transition into either the public high school or junior high school in Eureka. With acquisition of the new property, the girls will now be able to attend The Chrysalis School, with certified teachers, and accreditation through the Lincoln County public school system. If desired, the girls will be able to graduate with a diploma from Lincoln Co. High School.

The Chrysalis School is designed for 16 to 19 year old girls who have struggled in conventional academic settings, due to learning styles and disruptions due to family and/or emotional issues, or various dependencies. The length of stay in the program will be flexible, based on how much time they need to prepare themselves for independent living, college or a vocation. I met the teacher who oversees the individualized educational program that will accommodate up to 16 girls. I asked about specific ways she will be able work with girls who need remediation, or enable motivated students to accelerate the pace of their academics. She explained that because they receive their accredited through the Lincoln Co. school system, they have access to a variety of resources, including tutoring. Girls who wish to earn college credit may do so through correspondence courses as well, as long as they are not neglecting the other aspects of their therapeutic work.

I can certainly understand how the teacher will be able to make use of the surrounding habitat as part of Chrysalis’ goal of “helping students develop an increased awareness and increased respect for education that can best be discovered in natural settings.” It was hard to keep my eyes on the road on my drive to Chrysalis; the landscape was stunning! They are located in the Canadian Rockies, near Glacier National Park, the Ten Lakes Scenic Area, the Koocanusa Reservoir and the Flathead Wild and Scenic River System.

This of course enables them to take full advantage of the area, which it sounds like they do, for the outdoor recreation aspect of their curriculum. When I visited, they were in the process of preparing to take the girls over to Glacier Park to do trail work as part of a service project they do each year. In addition to the many seasonal-based opportunities, their program has physical activity every morning, either running with Kenny, or weight lifting or doing aerobics with Mary. From observing and speaking to them, they seem to be good role models for a healthy lifestyle! I was frustrated that I had arrived too late to go kayaking with them that day; they are fairly close to a number of beautiful rivers. Perhaps I’ll see the students and staff on the ski slopes this winter, where they are known to frequent. There are also horses on the property, which the girls can ride when they are not backpacking, white-water rafting, mountain biking, swimming or rock climbing.

I was able to benefit from the “fruits of their labors” when I shared the plump, ripe raspberries the students were harvesting. They seemed to be having fun working in the lush and beautiful gardens. The grounds were extremely well manicured, as were the gardens, where they grow many of their own foods during the summer.

When I toured the house, they showed me one of the places where informal groups tend to take place. Again, the pleasant environment of the home seemed like it would encourage therapeutic conversations, without the distractions of a formal office setting. The home-based program provides group, family and individual therapy with Kenny and Mary, who are masters level therapists. The staff for the older girls program also have these qualifications. Since these therapists teach, work, recreate and live with the students on a daily basis, they have many opportunities to build trusting relationships with the girls, enabling therapy to take place informally, when the need arises. Having therapists with the background and ability to deal with the girls’ therapeutic issues participating with them in their daily activities, I feel, is a tremendous opportunity. It allows needed therapeutic work to take place at the most appropriate moment. Staff and residents also meet regularly throughout the week for “circles”, the term they use for group therapy. If desired, additional Circles can be requested by any resident or staff.

Kenny and Mary talked about how the local community has been very supportive of their efforts, having seen the girls flourish in the Chyrsalis program. The public school system has also been cooperative, helping to provide a variety of options for the girl’s educational activities. As the girls gain more independent living and vocational skills, they are encouraged to work in the surrounding community as an apprentice or as a part time employee.

Kenny and Mary also spoke of parent visits, which are encouraged about three or four times a year, along with the multi-family weekends which will take place twice a year. These multi-family weekends are now included in the program because Mary and Kenny realized the benefit that occurred when multiple families happened to visit on the same weekend. The families gained a lot of insight and support through their interactions, so these weekends are now scheduled as a way to provide parents and siblings the opportunity to grow along with their Chrysalis student. Students also participate in phone calls with their family each week, which in the early stages of the student’s stay, are conferenced in order to provide needed support. The families are also encouraged to participate in many of the scheduled adventure outings throughout the year.

I had to time my visit to coincide with the program’s return from Costa Rica. The foreign and domestic travel aspect of their program provides “a rich opportunity for cultural and ecological diversity” and “an awareness of the world beyond our borders.” Some of the girls will earn academic credit for their time in Costa Rica as a result the projects they were working on at the time of my visit.

I feel Chrysalis is a wonderful opportunity for a girl who is ready for this kind of transitional program. Girls with diagnostic issues such as mood disorders, trauma and stress-related disorders, distorted self image, attentional problems or who are oppositional without actual “Conduct Disorder,” would be appropriate, if they were willing to live within the guidelines of this program, and are at least “marginally curious about themselves.” While it is not a program for primary treatment of addictions, they will accept students who have committed to a program of recovery prior to acceptance. Although quite rural, Chrysalis does have access to medical and psychiatric professionals, if needed. The students need to be capable of vigorous physical activity, and the school is not equipped to handle certain medical conditions or special needs. The girls I observed seemed happy to be there and appeared to be working on the issues that had caused them to be enrolled. This does not surprise me; I can imagine once they have settled in, they would want to do whatever was necessary in order to be able to be able to stay to do their healing in such a beautiful and nurturing environment.

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