Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Feb 11, 2010, 13:48

Newport, Washington
Jim Brewster

Visit By: Loi Eberle, MA, IECA, October 29, 2009

I was favorably impressed by the growth and changes that have occurred at the thriving community of Penrith Farms since my last visit a few years ago. Defining itself as a "Specialized Therapeutic Community" of young adults ages 18 to 26, Penrith Farms is located on 320 acres of timber and farmland in Eastern Washington. Many of their numerous buildings have been built by past residents and employees, and the resident's houses had been remodeled since I was last there. Quite comfortable and attractive, they are consistent with the rustic feeling of the area, with wood stoves, stone and wood interiors.

The owner/directors, Jim and Sherry Brewster initially developed this homestead, farmland and creek as a self-sustaining environment for their family. They became a therapeutic program for the State of Washington in 1983. Over the years Penrith Farms evolved into a therapeutic community devoted to personal commitment, communication and self-discovery, with a focus on teaching the value of honesty, trust, and respect. I noticed during my visit that the family feeling remains, now including staff and residents.

My conversations with their Clinical Director, Michael Hoffman, MSW, and his staff revealed that they will consider a wide profile of potential applicants, including depression with psychotic features, and schizophrenia. They will not accept applicants with a history of violence or extreme oppositionality. Applicants with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and/or addiction must have a commitment to sobriety. Since they are of age, applicants must be there willingly, although in many cases that decision is made as a result of their parents' limitation of other choices. They have a nurse on staff who is on-call 24/hrs, and a consulting psychiatrist in Spokane, less than an hour away.

During our conversations, staff spoke about the advantage of the Penrith Farms therapeutic community for connecting with each resident from a realistic, spontaneous, and honest perspective. Their therapeutic approach involves creating a personal relationship based on trust, using the learning opportunities throughout the week to highlight therapeutic goals. Based on the mutual decision of the resident and therapist, individual therapy sessions and/or specialty groups are attended each week, in addition to the weekly community meeting. They strive to create daily opportunities for the residents to learn to understand the outcomes of their behavior, helping them change any inappropriate and non-productive behaviors. This is done in part by employing a positive peer culture: each person is responsible for encouraging others to succeed and hold each other accountable for their words and actions. This creates the basis for learning about personal responsibility and developing essential leadership skills through appropriate role modeling. Devoid of a "level system", residents instead move toward their mutually defined treatment goals based on their interaction with the staff and other residents.

Penrith Farm's educational and vocation components focus on challenging and inspiring their residents on a daily basis to make a commitment to change their behaviors and thinking process. Part of this involves teaching the benefit of a positive work ethic and taking responsibility. They emphasize effective communication, cooperation and completion, teaching skills that will help residents to become proactive rather than reactive, regarding the outcome of their decision and thinking process. The residents' schedule includes chores, gym, group meetings/therapy and a variety of classes in which they can choose to participate. Residents have options for completing high school or their GED and can earn college credit through a combination of correspondence courses and classes in the nearby town. They have a number of horses and are offer Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) along with horsemanship classes.

Although it was unseasonably cold and snowy during my visit, I walked over to their 50' X 25' state-of-the-art, hand-built greenhouse that operates on a year-round basis. Gratefully I entered the warm and inviting interior, heated by a large wood stove and 1000-watt high-pressure sodium lights for illumination and additional heat generation. Alicia, the Organic Gardening Supervisor, with a background in Botanical Studies, introduced me to one of the residents working in the greenhouse. He told me how much he enjoyed learning to grow food, and described the 10+ acre garden area next to the green house where additional organic food is grown during the spring and summer months. They bragged about how some of the best restaurants in Spokane, WA, and Sandpoint, ID, feature their organic produce.

Other staff explained to me that in addition to daily maintenance of the garden, which involves the physical tasks of planting, cultivation, harvesting, composting and fence building, the farm is also home to several types of animals. Caring for the rabbits, honey bees, cattle, poultry, horses, dogs and cats all provide opportunities for learning responsibility, teamwork and commitment.

There is a fully equipped woodworking facility, where the residents learn the basic carpentry skills involved with designing and creating projects for individual and communal use. Although not open at the time of my visit, I was told about their journeyman carpenter and cabinetmaker with 30 years of experience who supervises the woodshop. Another class available to residents is basic vehicle maintenance and small engine repair. All the work is performed in the auto shop and supervised by an experienced mechanic. Other classes include drawing, baking, photography, chess, plumbing, poetry, yoga, culture cooking and budgeting. Students participate in cooking their meals.

When an appropriate level of trust is earned, Penrith staff provides its residents transportation within a 10 mile radius, to various internships, classes and job opportunities. Some of the residents work at Small Planet Tofu, their food production business, which produces up to 7000 pounds weekly and distributes tofu products to sixteen states.

I was impressed by the number of opportunities to learn valuable life skills that are available to residents in this attractive, rustic setting. The young people I spoke with were fairly open about their challenges, favorable about what they were learning and seemed engaged in the process. Penrith staff was friendly, their computerized scheduling and communication process was well organized and the houses felt cozy. This felt like a good place to mature and acquire the communication and life skills needed for independence.

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