Jun 8, 2009, 09:20

By Judith E. Bessette EdD

At the conclusion of the successful 2009 NATSAP Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, a conference honoring the tenth anniversary of the organization, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking with Penny James, the conference chair. Penny is also one of the founders and the current Director of Explorations, a family-based program in Montana that has been in operation for twenty years. I was interested in learning about how she got started in this business, her observations about how her program -- and the industry as a whole -- has changed, and about her involvement in NATSAP.

Tell me how you got involved in this work...

In the mid-80's, I had several jobs working with kids -- as a camp counselor with both LD kids and gifted kids. I did some work in vocational counseling with developmentally delayed students and served as a volunteer GED instructor for inmates at a state prison. A few years later, I began working in the field of troubled teens at one of the original therapeutic schools. That was in the 80s and I had the good fortune to be surrounded with many of the first generation folks that worked with kids here in Montana. Trout Creek (Montana) had become my home and my partner and I decided to give our own program a try. We wanted to create a home-based program -- not a group home -- but a place that was high-touch, nurturing and operated on a family model. We ran a pilot program during the summer of 1989 and started operating year round the following summer. I believe Explorations was a real pioneer in home-based programming.

How has Explorations changed over the years?

Many things have changed for us - as well as for the industry as a whole -- including heightened emphasis on meeting students' clinical needs and increased checks and balances that a home-based operation needs. For instance, we have our therapists come into the house to see things "up close and personal." We are also doing considerably more work with families, using a family systems approach.

Do you ever think about retiring or moving on or ???

Funny you should ask! A couple of years ago -- 2003 to be exact -- we decided to sell but agreed to stay on and run the program. Within a few months we recognized, as did our new owners, that this was not a marriage made in heaven. Our home-based model was too different from the rest of their programs. At the same time, my husband (and business partner) and I realized we'd been running our program too long as the owners to become employees.

We were able to come to a mutually acceptable agreement and we took the business back. The whole experience led to us re-thinking everything...our school year model... our summer programs...even our personal relationship and family life. At the end of the summer of 2007, we had a moratorium on enrollments so we could spend the time to focus on our family and personal issues. In April 2008, I became the sole owner of Explorations. Although I have owned and operated a program for nearly 20 years, I was worried and excited like only a new owner can be! I had spent the previous winter examining every aspect of Explorations. I implemented some new program ideas and a new business model. I began to surround myself with experienced people who believed in the same values with regard to kids, families and the work we all do. My ex-husband is pursuing a new career - but in a direction that has pulled at him for a long time. He's just up the road so our kids can spend plenty of time with him.

What happened next?

As the sole Director of the program, the buck now stops with me. And, as I said, I found that exciting and scary all at the same time. I think the summer of 2008 launched a new chapter for Explorations. With Leona Gollen, my right-hand gal, at my side and with the programmatic support of Dan Ward as our Summer Coordinator and Larry Culp as our Treatment Team Coordinator, we jumped into uncharted waters together. It was great! Small, individualized - back to the roots of Explorations! And, we enjoyed a summer filled with laughter! Joy about our work! We've got 4 young men in residence at the house now, all of whom started last fall. We're still a co-ed home during the school year but this year, it just worked out that we had all boys. I've enjoyed a nearly 20-year collaborative relationship with our public schools and the local community and believe that much is available here for the right kid and for their family.

I'm looking forward to this coming summer. It should be very exciting. In addition to our 52 and 55-day adventure courses for boys and girls, we've added a Boys-Only 3-week Personal Leadership Course that includes a family trip and also added a Women's Empowerment Experience, focusing on relevant issues for young women 16 - 19. We are also offering a pilot joint venture with Montana Academy for prospective female students. Any female students enrolled in our summer program that are candidates for MA will enjoy a high level of collaboration between our therapists and those at MA. It's a new idea to blend the treatment continuum, save families some money and hopefully provide smooth transitions for kids and families.

So, tell me about your involvement with NATSAP.

I was invited to the very first organizational meeting in 1999, but I had just become a new mom and had a baby with some special health issues. I did get involved soon after in the first Ethics Summit in Santa Barbara in the summer of 2000 and that led to a great deal of time and effort spent on developing the guiding principles of NATSAP. While everything about the organization has been tweaked over time -- and through the tenure of three executive directors -- much of the original intent of the organization -- to serve as a "national resource for programs and professionals assisting young people beleaguered by emotional and behavioral difficulties" (directly from the NATSAP website) remains intact. Cliff Brownstein recently took over the helm as the newest Executive Director, and I have all the confidence in the world he will continue to guide the organization well.

I served on the NATSAP Board for eight years...and it's been a real pleasure and honor to serve. I had the privilege to "round table" with some of the brightest, most creative and heart-centered folks in our industry. I miss it greatly. However, I have recently been appointed by Montana's Governor to serve on the Board for Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP). We are working hard to establish standards and regulations for Montana programs.

And what do you do for fun?

Well...all of this has been fun! My job is truly a way of life. But I do have big fun -- and learning moments -- as the mother of 3 -- an 11th grader, a 7th grader and my "baby" who's in 4th grade. Most of the things I do in my free time surround my kids! I've served on our local public school board since 2001, am a Girl Scout leader and spend a lot of time sitting in bleachers….watching my kids participate in sports. Me time? I love to read, walk, garden and spend time with my friends and my incredible family. Pretty simple stuff!

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