In the 140 years that the Children’s Home of Kingston has been taking care of kids, a lot has changed.
Founded in 1876 by Miss Mary Isabella Forsyth with some friends, it was first known as the Industrial Home of the City of Kingston on Maiden Lane. Rented for $300 per year, its motto was “to seek and save.” Later, it changed addresses several times to different locations around Kingston before landing at the current Grove Street site. Boys would sometimes be sent by rail, known as “orphan trains,” to be placed at area farms — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.
A report written by Forsyth at the time called for questioning and changing policies due to the “problems and perplexities created by this New Industrial Area,” thereby beginning the transition from housing orphans and paupers to children from “broken homes.” Forsyth’s observations were ahead of her time: “In most cases there was insecurity at home, not always straight poverty but difficult living; friction between parents; inability to supply the most common needs for a fairly happy childhood.”
What Forsyth noted, however, is no different today, believes Cindy Kouhout, the Children’s Home executive director who took the role two years ago, following longtime director Gwenn McCann’s retirement. Kouhout’s background as a social worker before obtaining her master’s in public administration suits her well for the position. The state Office of Children and Family Services oversees the programs in the all-boys facility.
The Children’s Home of Kingston has 32 “hard to place” boys, ages 8-21, at which point they age out of the foster care system entirely. Though the average stay at the Children’s Home is nine months, there are kids who have been there as long as eight years. The longer-term kids concern Kouhout deeply, as she worries those boys have become “institutionalized.” There are an additional 24 students in grades 4-12 in their daytime Grove Street Academy school who are sent by different school districts from around the region with profound behavioral, developmental and cognitive issues. The New Horizons program at serves vulnerable youth in a safe, residential environment that also includes education and independent living training. Those kids are being reunited with family members living throughout the United States after spending an average of 15-30 days in care at the Children’s Home. There are over 140 staff members devoted to running the entire operation.
These kids all have one very significant thing in common, Kouhout says: Trauma. “They have all been abused, neglected, traumatized,” she said, concurring with Forsyth’s long-ago conclusions. “The fact they are here means that they have been traumatized. They have been pulled out of their home and placed here, which is traumatizing.”
Kouhout said the children who are sent through their school district for the day program of the school often have a dual diagnosis, such as cognitive disorders, developmental delays and mental illnesses. ““Some of the kids come from very unstable homes— some that can be dangerous,” said Kouhout. “Once they start as day students, there are some who don’t want to go home. There is one young boy who doesn’t want to go home, he doesn’t even know why … but he knows he feels loved and safe here, and taken care of. That tells me we are doing something right.”
Rodney Broadhead has been working at the Children’s Home for 17 years, now as a cottage manager. He said he recognizes how the boys respond differently to him than the female staff, largely, he thinks, due to hurtful males in their lives. “They won’t tell you they have issues with males, but they will show you,” he said, often in the form of avoiding him, or getting overly attached. “They’re more reluctant to deal with me and focus on the female staff.”
Just like adults, some kids show their damage more than others. Throughout the facility are kids one would never guess were suffering any trauma issues. Other kids were more visibly affected; they’re either sullen and withdrawn, or agitated, aggressive, hostile, defensive, avoidant, hyperactive or attention-seeking. A must-have trait the counselors, teachers, care givers, cottager managers, social workers — and even the maintenance crew responsible for repairing damage from flared tempers — is patience.
The school day is 8:30-2:30, and includes nine periods. The younger kids are in a self-contained classroom with one teacher, while the high school kids switch classes for every subject like in a traditional school. There is also technology (which is like shop class), home and career skills, Spanish, gym and a music room that’s got multiple percussion instruments perfect for banging on. There is a full gym, pool, basketball court, soccer field and recreation room. After school, they return to their “cottage” — dorm-style structures, where every child has his own bedroom. Each cottage has nine boys and a cottage manager enforcing the rules. The kids are responsible for keeping their rooms clean and their own laundry, which happens in their downtime after school before dinner, like most households.
Structuring the kids’ schedules to reflect that of a “normal” household is important, said Kouhout. She said kids are expected to do chores, clean, homework, and contribute around the campus, such as picking up garbage, like one might be expected to do around home.
Trips into the community are especially emphasized for numerous reasons. Last winter, said Kouhout, the kids shoveled the driveways of the surrounding neighbors, who were so surprised and appreciative that they bought the kids pizza as a thank-you.
Put a new face on it
The Children’s Home of Kingston is looking to update their image, and wants to change its name. The Grove Street Academy was named by the students, which Kouhout witnessed as a positive image change for the students. They have been asking the kids and community to suggest names, and Kouhout said their responses have moved her. “We want to get away from that institutional image and the old orphanage stigma,” she said. “We want something that better represents who we are and what we do, and who our kids are. Their names have been interesting. They have opened my eyes like, wow, that is what they think of this place … It’s very positive and encouraging.” One such example: “The Home of the Young and Intelligent,” and another boy suggested “Hudson Valley Gentleman’s Center/Home”, citing, “… and the gentleman part is due to the progress we can make to becoming better men and young men to the community.”
It’s not uncommon for kids to reach out to the staff after they have left. Broadhead said it’s difficult to hear how some kids are doing, especially the ones whose lives didn’t improve after they left.
Play it out
Kouhout believes the best approach with kids is through recreation, and so their schedules often include it. Kouhout said many of the kids have exceptional talent in sports, particularly basketball, that just needs to be developed. They have been playing in the local Biddy league as well as on their own “in-house” team against the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie. Arshay Cooper, a renowned African-American author and motivational speaker raised in poverty of Chicago who was on the first African-American rowing team, has been working with the boys on rowing. The kids got to compete — and medal — at a West Point rowing tournament.
The Bruderhof visits the Children’s Home for a bicycle maintenance program in which the boys to learn proper repair and maintenance of a bike that they are allowed to ride while in care, and then take home when they leave — something the kids really value, said Kouhout.
The Children’s Home is also trying to institute a mentor program for kids who don’t have family, support or resources. The mentors would visit the kids on-site to play cards, and then eventually go off-campus. Candidates are very carefully screened and background checked, like employees, and go through a series of thorough interviews.
Kouhout plans to focus on recreation in the Children’s Home annual appeal, with a community ask of $50,000. “They have always been told they were no good and worthless,” said Kouhout. “Many of the parents have thrown the kids away, but we believe that we can reach the kids. We can identify something their good at — I think that’s a way to reach the kids.”
Her ultimate goal is to hire a therapeutic recreation coordinator who designs a goal-oriented, recreation program around each child’s needs. She said she would like to see goals created and met, and the therapist teach the child how to take the skills and lessons learned in the sport to translate into an actual life skill. “Maybe some kids want to do chess and they want to do something other than sports, but something they find rewarding. I want that person to find what their love and desires are. How could we take their sport, and match it to the goals of getting out of here? The sport would relate back to their life and goals, it would help them get out of here. Did they play a whole game without a fight? It could even be something like volunteering at soup kitchen.”
The Children’s Home of Kingston is in need of recreation supplies and sporting goods such as basketballs, sports equipment, bicycles and games. They would also welcome donation of arts and crafts supplies. For more information about the Children’s Home, visit chkingston.org.