Neighbors uneasy about VisionQuest escapes

January 28, 1997


Staff Writer

SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - Sixteen teenagers have walked away from VisionQuest camp for juveniles here in the past 13 months, and some residents in the area say the escapes are making them uneasy.

Last year, 12 teenagers walked away from the VisionQuest camp, which houses 120 juveniles sent there by the courts, according to Pennsylvania State Police.

So far this year, four youths have walked away from the South Mountain camp, VisionQuest officials said Tuesday.

None of the youths who escaped has gotten into serious trouble while out of the camp, according to police.

One stolen car was attributed to a runaway VisionQuest resident last year, said state police Lt. John Thierwechter, commander of the Chambersburg barracks.


But some people who live in the area of the camp have the jitters over the number of escapes.

"I have problems with the camp," said Chuck Knepper who lives on Baker Road not far from the camp on Rocky Mountain Road. "They have troubled youths there and no fences and no security."

Knepper said he had heard that the camp houses young murderers and rapists, but a VisionQuest official denied that was the case.

"We don't have any violent offenders here," said Jake Devonshire, the camp's operations director.

Most have been through the juvenile justice system for crimes against property or drug and alcohol abuse, he said.

"We're dealing with unwanted, damaged kids," said VisionQuest spokeswoman Pat Yeager. "Some of our residents are parents themselves."

A typical VisionQuest resident is male, black, 15 to 16 years old, has been through the juvenile justice system and has been referred to the camp by a judge or other court official, Devonshire said. Most come from urban areas.

One-third of all VisionQuest graduates get into serious trouble with the law after leaving the camp. One-third have minor scrapes with the law and one-third stay clear of the justice system, Devonshire said.

He said fences don't fit VisionQuest's philosophy of creating a home-like setting and strong parental-like controls from the camp's nearly 100 staffers.

Besides, he said, "Fences don't stop escapes."

Neighbors say fences would make them feel more secure.

"They can't guarantee our safety," said Patty Wagaman, a neighbor. "I'm not against them being there, but these escapes have been going on for two years and things haven't changed. It really perturbs me when it happens."

Yeager said neighbors who opt to sign a notification list will be called when a student walks off.

Devonshire said staffers, especially those who work at night when most runaways occur, have been retrained and security at the camp has been tightened.

VisionQuest is not the only facility in the area for troubled youths.

The Abraxas Foundation Inc. facility, a boot camp for juvenile offenders about a mile a away, has 105 beds in the military-style camp.

Wagaman said Abraxas Foundation has caused few problems in the community.

Corley Myers, who is in charge of the camp, said only three cadets have walked off in the three years the camp has been open, Myers said.

Devonshire said VisionQuest, which was started in 1973 in Arizona, serves about 700 youths, including about 50 girls in facilities across the country. The organization has six camps, including three in Pennsylvania, wagon trains that crisscross the country, mounted precision drill teams of Buffalo Soldiers, two tall sailing ships and a number of group homes.

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