Over the past eight months, 16-year-old Anthony has seen changes in his life.
"I used to party all the time," he said. "I'd drink, smoke weed, stay out all night, not listen to my parents, skip school and stay at home and sleep. Now I'm passing in school. I've stopped smoking, and I haven't drank in eight months."
Anthony is one of 100 residents of LaSalle School in Albany, a multi-faceted child welfare agency, serving youth and families in critical need through its residential, day services and prevention services programs.
Caring for children
Founded in 1854 by the Brothers of Christian Schools as a boys orphanage, LaSalle School has made meeting the needs of youth and families the basis of its programs. Throughout its history, the agency has remained true to its original intent: to provide care for disadvantaged youth and their families by helping them develop skills necessary for responsible participation in family, community and adult life.
Boys ages 11 to 18 are referred to LaSalle by county social service agencies, school district committees of special education, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, and the Family Court system.
While the youth come for a number of different reasons, the goal for each remains the same: to address the problems that have led to placement, to assist them in developing life skills, to provide supportive resources and attitudes to make positive changes in their lives, and to prepare them to function without the support and supervision they have while at LaSalle.
According to Kelly Young, director of service management at LaSalle, each boy has different goals during their stay. These range from reunification with the family, getting back on track with academics, dealing with substance abuse problems, or getting counseling for sexual abuse.
For example, in addition to cutting smoking and drinking out of his life, Anthony has made other changes with the help of LaSalle's staff. "My stepdad -- we've talked now," he said. "We used to argue every day. We talk it out now."
Anthony is clean-cut, with short hair and glasses, giving no outward indication of the problems that brought him to LaSalle. The future and making changes in his life are a priority for him now.
"I'd like to be a chef," he said. "I love to cook." Of the lessons he's learned at LaSalle, a few stand out in his mind: "If you want to change, you have to come here and give it your best shot. Also, I wish I had listened to my parents."
Ken, a 16-year-old from Oneonta, has also made changes in his life during the 10 months he's been at LaSalle.
"My attitude's changed," he said. "The way I look at things is different. I used to take things for granted. I miss seeing my mom every day. Now I see mom every Sunday. I used to disrespect her. Now I treat her with respect."
Ken and other residents learn respect by being respected. "When a young person arrives at LaSalle School, he is accepted with an understanding that the scope of the behaviors and experiences which caused him to come to us neither defines who he is nor limits what he may be capable of in the future," said William Wolff, executive director of LaSalle. "No matter what, he is worthy of our respect, our compassion and our full commitment to do all that we can to help him and his family chart a better course for his life."
One unique aspect of LaSalle's program is its Christian service component.
"It's a unique opportunity for children usually on the receiving end of services to help others for the first time," said Brother James Martino, FSC, director of health, medical and related services at LaSalle.
Ms. Young said the service program makes a difference for the youth. "For some, it's the first time they're told they're good," she said. "We plug them into things that make them feel good."
The presence of the Christian Brothers also makes LaSalle unique, Ms. Young said. Both the brothers involved in full-time ministry and the presence of retired brothers living on campus have an important influence on the youth and the staff, she said.
Other programs make LaSalle unique:
* It is one of a few residential facilities licensed by the state to provide a residential substance abuse treatment program.
* The school recently won the "Excellence in Programming" award from the American Lung Association of Northeastern New York for its smoking cessation program.
* LaSalle offers a juvenile sexual victims/offender program. The intensified program includes individual, group and family treatment as well as relapse prevention. "The younger we can catch them, the better we can do," Ms. Young said.
The educational program at LaSalle -- youth are in school for 220 days a year with 10 to 12 pupils per class in grades six through 12 -- is designed to meet the diverse academic needs of the youth. Brother Jim explained that it's not unusual to have one 16-year-old who needs to take a Regents biology course and another who needs to learn to how to read.
For the youth living in one of the six residential units, the day begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast and classes. They return to their dorm-like residences at 2:30 for room checks. According to Pedro Lopez, senior child care worker, each boy is responsible for keeping his area neat and clean. There are two to three boys per room.
At 3, the boys have snacks, and quiet time follows. During this period, they participate in quiet, educational activities. The only television allowed is educational. At 4 p.m., they begin cleaning up for dinner. After dinner is another quiet time for writing home and practicing writing or reading.
LaSalle has changed in many ways since Brother Andrew Lamb, FSC, a retired brother now in residence, was first there.
"Back in the '50s, it was principally an orphanage, and we'd have children for three to five years," he said. "By the '70s, we were changing. We had orphans and PINS [Persons In Need of Supervision]. If you were a known juvenile delinquent, you weren't taken. At the present time, we take juvenile delinquents. Now, they are more emotionally disturbed and less trusting of adults."
Brother Andrew said the staff of LaSalle now has more to do for the youths and less time to do it. One thing that hasn't changed is the enthusiasm of the staff.
"The staff is as devoted as before," he said. "It's more difficult work. Very fine work is going on in difficult situations. People in the area should be supportive through prayers and support. The youth aren't monsters at all."
Just as LaSalle's purpose has changed since its founding, and just as the staff has evolved from one made up primarily of brothers to a lay staff, other changes are currently taking place.
A $6 million construction project, which is expanding the educational facilities of the school, is nearing completion. The project is being funded through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. The project includes a fully equipped science lab, gymnasium, an updated library, music rooms, art rooms, home and careers classrooms, and technology rooms.
In addition, LaSalle has recently kicked off a separate $2.2 million capital fundraising campaign to upgrade existing facilities, including the residences, and to build an endowment.
Growing for 2000
While the prospect of new facilities is exciting, Mr. Wolff said LaSalle is more than buildings. "It's not the building; it's the people," he said of LaSalle.
"We see a growing demand for services," he continued. "For every slot, we have three or four requests."
The need for the building project is mostly due to the age of the current facility. The buildings currently on campus date between 1899 and 1920.
Said Mr. Wolff, "We used those buildings, and they provided us with a century of growth. Hopefully, the new buildings will provide us with another century."