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A Place to Call Home: MacDonell Children’s Services offers a safe place for children
“I just left a foster family—it wasn’t working out, and I was having trouble with grades in school,” he said. “Ever since I came back to MacDonell, the help provided by tutors has helped me to go from making Fs to making As in math.” Tom had been a resident at the home three years ago.
MacDonell Children’s Services, a child care agency located on an oak-tree-shaded campus in Houma, La., is a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution. “MacDonell is a fun place to live. You get support and they show a lot of love. They help you do what you need to do—they try to teach you and prepare you for the future,” said Tom.
Meeting children where they are
This residential home that is preparing Tom and other children for life is nestled in the bayous of Cajun Country, an area largely populated by working-class people with big hearts and natural hospitality. That same warmth is exhibited by MacDonell’s staff, who strive to provide a safe, loving and nurturing environment to their family of residents. Those residents, boys and girls from the ages of 11-17, are there because the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services deems that they are in need of the facility’s care.
“These are children and adolescents whose needs cannot be met in their families or in the foster care system,” said Kevin Champagne, executive director for MacDonell. “Many have experienced abuse or neglect in their young lives, and our job is to help them get to a point where they can return to their families or the foster care system.”
Previously, Champagne worked in the inpatient psychiatric unit at Chabert Medical Center and as the compliance officer of Chabert under the Louisiana State University system. He has served in the position of executive director of MacDonell for more than two years.
When children arrive at MacDonell, the staff strives to meet each child where they are mentally, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. At the time of placement in the facility, an individualized plan is developed that is designed to fulfill the needs of that child and to assist her or him in meeting their full potential in adulthood. “The staff at MacDonell believes it is very important for each child to assist with setting goals for themselves so that they can develop the independence and self-confidence they need to be successful in life,” said Champagne.
Amber Cangelosi, business office manager for the home, came to MacDonell from a “very corporate” environment. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that corporate America is driven by money, and here our ultimate goal is to help children,” said Cangelosi. Most people don’t realize the extent of the number of children that need this kind of help, she said. “We live in a bubble. These are the kids that your children are going to school with, and they need the community’s support.”
Bryan Augustine, service plan manager for MacDonell, receives referrals on the children from the state Department of Child and Family Services. He deals almost daily with the family and city court systems and works to keep up with the required documentation. He has been with MacDonell for 26 years, rising to his current position after starting out as a child care worker. “I love it,” said Augustine. “The work we do is so critical.”
Krystal Dion, residential services coordinator for MacDonell, oversees recreation and educational assistance. She feels most rewarded by the job when she observes the children exhibiting behavior that shows the progress they have achieved. “Just recently, some of the kids were heading back home after baseball practice and they heard a woman screaming for help. When they went over to her, they saw that her hand was caught in a fence. She was in her nightclothes and very cold. One of the boys gave her his jacket to wear, and they applied pressure to the wound on her hand. The kids contacted their coach, who then called 911. It was a very mature and caring response on the part of the children,” said Dion.
Pictured, left to right, Rick Larkin, Plant Manager; Annette Domangue, Administrative Assistant; Amber Cangelosi, Business Office Manager; Kevin Champagne, Executive Director; back row, Bryan Augustine, Service Plan Manager; Krystal Dion, Residential Services Coordinator
The program at MacDonell Home is designed specifically to build the maturity exhibited when the children helped the hurt woman. According to Mr. Champagne, a rewards system seems to help students stay on track and make the connection that positive behavior produces positive results.
John (not his real name), a resident at the home explained that if he receives good scores, the reward could be weekend outings like trips to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. “If you’re good, sometimes you can go to Pelicans basketball games or other sports events. You can also have more electronics time. Or maybe play sports on a local team.”
The village it takes
The opportunity to participate in community sports leagues is one of the ways that MacDonell has recently increased visibility for the facility and allowed for more freedoms for its residents. Just as important as league sports is the relationship that exists with First United Methodist Church in Houma, which connects the children with caring people who offer love and opportunities for spiritual development.
Many of the children attend 8:45 a.m. worship services at First United Methodist on most Sunday mornings. “Some have served as acolytes and ushers. Over the years, I have baptized a number of the boys,” said the Rev. Don Ross, pastor.
The kids participate in the church’s vacation Bible school each year and are included in church pot lucks and other events. “They also helped us unload pumpkins that were delivered for the church’s annual pumpkin patch,” said Rev. Ross, who leads a weekly Bible study at MacDonell for the children.
“On Sundays, if the kids are not here, there is a void. A couple of them have shared with us, with one even performing a rap song for the congregation. Our members look at these children as ‘their’ kids,” he said.
Over the past several years, the State of Louisiana has undergone many changes in behavioral health, said Champagne. The first change occurred in 2012 with the creation of the Louisiana Behavioral Health Partnership, which created a managed care system for behavior health services provided to Medicaid recipients. Many of the services MacDonell previously provided to its residents, such as counseling and group therapy, were to be provided by outside agencies. The changes also reduced the number of children that could be cared for at the home from 36 to 16.
“As a result of the changes, MacDonell was left with no practical alternative but to become what is known as a non-medical group home. The facility had to reduce staff and eventually close one of the cottages, limiting the total number of children to be cared for to 12,” he added.
MacDonell is again facing another transition as a residential facility working within the Louisiana Behavioral Health Partnership managed care system. Most of the programs provided within the Louisiana Behavioral Health Partnership will transition from one managed care organization to the five Medicaid Bayou Health plans, and the non-medical group homes services will return to operation under the Department of Children and Family Services.
Motivated by the financial stress of keeping its doors open, in 2015 MacDonell began looking for opportunities to partner with other nonprofits and agencies. The home was able to secure a contract with Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government to house and manage a juvenile detention alternative program known as the Single Point Assessment and Resource Center (SPARC). The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) is a nationally known project developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992.
The JDAI is a comprehensive system reform model that has shown to safely reduce reliance on secure detention. This model has proven to reduce detention populations, improve public safety outcome, expand alternative programs, enhance conditions of confinement and reduce racial disparities.
The SPARC program will be housed and operated by MacDonell on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. The parish government will utilize the Terrebonne Children and Youth Planning Board as the contract monitor of the SPARC services. The youth board, resurrected by the parish president in 2012, will encourage the collaborative efforts among local stakeholders for assessing the physical, social, behavioral and educational needs of children and youth in their respective communities and for assisting in the development of comprehensive plans to address such needs. Terrebonne Parish would be the sixth parish to implement a JDAI program within Louisiana.
MacDonell was also able to partner with the nonprofit agency Options for Independence (OFI), which opened one of its unoccupied dorms and moved several of their children’s services to the MacDonell campus. OFI also assisted MacDonell with the financial needs of the renovation of two of its buildings by seeking community resources and donations.
A history of care
MacDonell has a long, rich history when it comes to serving children in South Louisiana. The agency was originally founded in 1919 as Wesley House Community Center by Ella K. Hooper and Laura N. White, deaconesses in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The mission started as a school for 10 girls. Ms. Hooper soon realized the critical need for education in the Houma area, which was then primarily a rural fishing village. Wesley House became the MacDonell French Mission School, which eventually began educating girls and boys. The campus grew to house five additional buildings.
MacDonell ceased its role as the French Mission School around 1949, when the institution began to serve Native American children in the Houma area. In 1953, Terrebonne Parish Public Schools began educating the Native American population and MacDonell shifted its focus to serve children who came from “broken homes,” or those who were “dependent and neglected.” Today, MacDonell continues to serve children who have been taken into foster care or who are in the custody of the state as well as children who need a group living experience.
MacDonell is governed by a 13-member board representing communities from across the state. One-third of its membership is United Methodist.
“MacDonell is able to provide services because of its covenant relationship with United Methodist Women, which owns the property on which the MacDonell campus resides. United Methodist Women provides support and training opportunities to many organizations throughout the United States, doing mission work focusing on women, children and youth,” said Champagne.
One of the things that makes the MacDonell home unique is its setting. Visitors to the property are greeted by the sight of the Wesley House, which is surrounded by numerous oak trees anywhere from 200-300 years old. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1832 and is the oldest house in Terrebone Parish.
The facility’s 17.5 acres and historic buildings provide the residents with a little bit of country in the middle of the city of Houma, said Rick Larkin, plant manager for the facility. “My job is to give the children a nice looking place to live,” said Larkin, who came to MacDonell in 1975. “I got called out to do a few days of work—those few days stretched out 40 years,” he said with a laugh.
During his tenure, Larkin has witnessed a lot of changes at the facility. “Even the way children are placed here has changed dramatically. Years ago, parents would come here needing help. Maybe one parent had passed away. Kids as young as five years old came to MacDonell and stayed until they were 16 or 17—essentially, they grew up here. Those kids are some of the ones who as adults now help with fundraising for the facility.”
One of those “MacDonell kids” is Paul Wayne, who spent eight years at the group home. Wayne wrote about his experiences at MacDonell in a book titled Unremembered Wings. The nurse anesthetist, who now lives in Denver, wrote in his book about the day he departed MacDonell: “The ancient live oak trees on campus shone in the morning light, and the azaleas outside the cottages were in full bloom. I could smell the salty, rich smell of the intercoastal canal and Bayou Terrebonne, where I had fished and played on countless afternoons. The white two-story framed buildings I first laid eyes on that frightening day eight years before hadn’t changed. But I had. I had grown into a young man here, someone who was capable of making his own decisions. They might not always be the best decisions, but they were mine.
“The children’s home continues to serve its mission as best it can under state regulations, helping lost children find their place in the world,” Wayne wrote.
The children being served at MacDonell express those same positive sentiments about the home and the people who run it. When asked if he has a favorite member of the staff, Tom said, “They’re all pretty much my favorite. Sometimes I can get on their nerves. But they’re just trying to help me.”
The story is written by Betty Backstrom, director of communications for the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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