A fresh start can do wonders. For children with a history of behavioral or mental health issues, accumulated diagnoses can seem like a heavy weight to carry. The opportunity to start anew in a residential program like the Wediko School in Windsor, New Hampshire, may feel like a lifeline.
Set on an idyllic 450-acre, lakeside property, Wediko prides itself on a strong culture of community and a dedicated staff whose goal, said Kim Guest, Psy.D, director of the school, is to help middle and high school-aged boys discover who they are beneath the labels with which they have come to live. The school is part of Wediko Children’s Services which also includes a summer program in New Hampshire along with community and school-based programs in Massachusetts and New York.
Guest spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the mission of the school and the working atmosphere that pulled her back to a career helping young men find the keys to future success.
Q: How long have you been with Wediko?
A: In 1995, I came on board in our summer program and did a combination of coordinating developmental programing and supervising before I left to get my doctorate.
Q: When you left was the plan always to come back?
A: I left with the intention of continuing to expand my skills and to see where it made the most sense to land. What drew me back to Wediko in 2003 was really the integration of the family model and the closeness of the community.
Q: What is it that sets Wediko apart?
A: I think that the network of people are important to its well-being at every level. That includes district and probation officers and families and students, staff, alumni staff, local community members and emergency responders.
We use a model where everyone is known to each other. Our highest-level clinicians are embedded into the dorms and into the milieu. They have dinner with the kids, facilitate activities and mentor and supervise direct care staff.
We prioritize having a campus size where everyone is well known. Our capacity is 44 with 12-day students and that is the right size for us for all of our staff to know everybody and to keep the campus predictable and consistent and tightly knit.
Second to providing services to kids and families, Wediko has always valued training and mentoring emerging professionals and providing intensive supervision. The cohort of staff that goes through that experience together tends to stay close and form lifelong relationships.
They may be running a school in Illinois or a community-based practice in Denver or working for our New York team but when they can identify a particularly complicated student and connect them with the right level of programming, even if it is in another agency, that is just so valuable. The more quickly kids who need residential get identified and serviced, the more efficiently we can get them back to the community.
Q: The school started as a summer camp?
A: It first opened in 1934 as a summer therapeutic program. The school program began in 1989 and today, they both share a property with tremendous resources for activities programming. There is a lake, a large gym, hiking and mountain biking trails, a playground with an amphitheater, outdoor athletic fields and tennis courts – tons of things to help kids expand their interests and strengths and ways of engaging successfully with friends.
Q: Who are these kids with whom you are working?
A: The typical Wediko student comes to us with layers of historical diagnoses and complicated webs of who people have understood them to be. A huge piece of treatment is peeling these layers away and getting to know the individual and then working on the primary obstacles to them engaging successfully. It is really common that there are mood disorders underneath or trauma histories, or neuro-developmental challenges and layers of executive functioning difficulties.
It is a privilege to work with people in such an inspirational process of change for themselves. I think that most of our staff would echo that there is a lot of courage that the children and families are regularly showing to pursue some of the things that they hope for.
Over time, it is inspiring to watch them gain confidence and excitement about their future potential. It is really common for alumni students to come back who have gone to a four-year college or to bring a spouse back. We have even had some students call when their first child is born. They want to share life accomplishments around being able to move towards being a successful family member and being connected to people in safe and genuine ways and feeling good about their identity and where they think they can head.
Q: What are your goals for the school for the near future?
A: In terms of developmental initiatives, we are always trying to find ways to maximize family involvement and to provide opportunities to generalize skills into the communities. The kids have equine therapy down at a farm. They go rock climbing at a gym nearby and we work with the YMCA. We go to museums and aquariums and hikes and we are always looking for ways to meet current interests and passions. The boys made a request last year to start a soccer team.
We also have an exciting partnership with folks in adventure based counseling. That is a really nice fit for our boys with campus being as outdoorsy as it is and it brings a fitness component as well as potential vocational components for several of the students.
Q: Do they ever want to leave? It sounds like a lot of fun.
A: There are a lot of fantastic opportunities but our job is to prioritize the home community. We work to find successes they can repeat at home. If they get passionate about volunteering at the humane society here we have people whose job it is to go find that humane society at home and help create that bridge so these skills become lifelong. We want them to heal and become excited about who they are and what they are doing. We want that to go with them of course.
Q: Is it difficult to work with families when these multiple layers of diagnoses would also be part of how they see the child?
A: The family makes a commitment to being actively involved. Family therapy is required as well as participating in teen meetings and tracking progress and thinking about structures at home that can be adjusted to be a better fit for all family members.
They are also looking at patterns of behavior that have been going on that they would like to change. Sometimes that is identifying really difficult traumatic interactions that have occurred and working through those.
Q: Your bio states that in the past you worked with trauma survivors from the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. What did you learn from that experience that you carry with you in your work today?
A: I think the first is that trauma can happen anywhere and secondly, that there can be serious repercussions for unmet mental health needs. It is really important to provide the needed supports to vulnerable and at-risk youth.
Beyond that, I learned that there is a great capacity for resilience in people when they have the right support.
By Catherine Robertson Souter