For troubled teens, a visit to a place called hope

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinions
Published Saturday, Jun. 25, 2011.   Margaret Wente

You may know a teenager like Gene or Sarah. They’re the kids from hell. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they have a serious drug habit and they’re flunking out of school. They’re self-destructive and out of control. And if teens like these aren’t supported in the transition to adulthood, they may never get their lives back on track.

Karen Minden had a family member like that. But help was hard to find. They were told the kid would outgrow it. But they were terrified the kid would not. “It was like standing on the edge of the river watching someone drown,” Karen recalls. “And people were saying, ‘Don’t throw them a life preserver, let it run its course.’ ”

Teenagers in this kind of trouble don’t need a little bit of help. They need a lot. The family finally found a long-term residential treatment program in the United States. It was crushingly expensive, but it worked. The teenager’s life turned around. A few years ago, Ontario and some other provinces began to pay for this kind of treatment south of the border. But there were no such programs in Canada.

Ms. Minden was determined to change that. She began to lobby the government and local institutions to start a treatment centre for kids in “global breakdown.” Everyone agreed the need was pressing. There were stacks of reports documenting the crisis in adolescent mental health. But nothing happened.

Eventually, it dawned on her that she’d have to do it herself.

It was an improbable career departure. Ms. Minden’s background is Asia-Pacific relations. She once studied in Beijing, and speaks colloquial Chinese. None of this is relevant to rescuing defiant, suicidal kids. But she was ferociously determined. She turned her analytical skills to creating a treatment program modelled on the best.

The government wouldn’t cough up funding until she proved herself. So she raised $4.5-million from private donors, corporations and foundations. She consulted hundreds of experts. She spent two years seeking the right site – 200 acres of rolling land 100 kilometres from Toronto, with a building on it. She recruited the best staff she could find, and called it the Pine River Institute. Today, five years after she opened the doors, she’s got the funding. This kind of service (the institute is non-profit) isn’t cheap – it costs about $450 a student a day. But it works. Most kids stay for under a year, and the success rate – the number of kids who stay off hard drugs and get back on track in school – is around 80 per cent.

Gene and Sarah (not their real names) are two of the 36 teenagers in the program. When Gene arrived, he was having constant run-ins with the law. Sarah was severely underweight, so drugged and depressed that she was incoherent. Both started the program at a wilderness camp in Algonquin Park, where they spent a month or more learning outdoor survival skills.

In the Pine River wilderness, kids are forced to make a complete break from the chaos of their former lives. They detox through diet and exercise. At first, they’re overwhelmed. “I hated it,” says Sarah. But it’s hard to feel suicidal and angry when you’re hiking, portaging, building fires and pitching tents. After a few weeks, she became stronger. Then she moved to the Pine River campus, a cross between a summer camp and a funky boarding school. The kids do gardening, music, art, therapy and school. They work in the kitchen and help with maintenance. They eat healthy food, and they look tan and fit.

The kids come from every social class. Their parents are professionals, postal workers and, sometimes, drug addicts. Everything about Pine River’s program is designed to help them reconnect with people and thrive in a new ecosystem – one that’s positive, instead of toxic.

When I dropped in on Thursday, you could cut the emotion with a knife. It was graduation day. One girl was ready to leave the program, and six students were graduating from high school. They wore caps and gowns, and their families cried and took their pictures. Gene and Sarah were among them.

I asked Sarah’s older sister if she thought this day would ever come. “No possible way! We’re over the moon.” Gene’s family was over the moon, too. “We thought we’d lost him,” his mother said.

A year or two ago, no one would have predicted these kids would ever finish high school. Now Sarah and most of the others are going on to college. “A lot of these kids have talent to burn,” said Ms. Minden, passing around the Kleenex.

There’s a moral to this story. Governments and established institutions are almost incapable of starting innovative programs such as this. They’re too risk-averse. They don’t have the drive or vision, and the cost of failure is far too high. A Pine River can only come from social entrepreneurs such as Ms. Minden – people with passion, imagination and perseverance. If you want the world to be a better place, do it yourself.

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