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VisionQuest aims to rehabilitate

March 25, 2002|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

It used to be commonplace for juveniles to walk away from Vision Quest every year, but new policies are improving security at the South Mountain facility for troubled youth.

Until a year ago young people slept in teepees in the camp. They now sleep in unlocked, but closed, Quonset hut-style buildings. Two adults stay awake all night in the dorms, said Pat Yeager, VisionQuest spokeswoman.

In the last year only one youth, a girl, walked off from the facility. She was picked up within the hour, said Robert Howard, director of the facility.

The population at VisionQuest last week was 154 , ages 13-18, including 110 girls and 44 boys, Howard said.

At-risk youths are sent to VisionQuest by the courts. They are referred by probation officers, caseworkers, judges, attorneys, school officials and parents.

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Not all have been through the criminal justice system, Howard said. Some have been sent for crimes ranging from serious felonies to truancy. Others are victims of abuse and neglect. Some end up at VisionQuest for both reasons.

The ratio of employees to youths is nearly one-to-one. About 140 of the facility's 150 employees are full-time, Howard said.

Vision Quest has camps and home-based programs across Pennsylvania and in more than six other states. The South Mountain camp opened in 1992.

VisionQuest is a for-profit business that charges from $128 to $154 a day.

Its programs are aimed at rehabilitation. They are based at camps like the one in South Mountain, in home settings, through community probation and after-care programs, behavioral health services, counseling programs, group homes, emergency shelters and alternative schools.

The South Mountain camp hosts two major endeavors, Hat Corps Camps for boys and girls and the Madalyn Program for girls.

Hat Corps runs 90 days and is like a disciplinary boot camp with marching and drilling. It also provides therapeutic sessions, academics and community service projects.

Girls stay in the Madalyn Program for three to 12 months. The program helps them work through problems in regular academic classes, therapeutic group sessions, individual counseling and life skills training.

Several girls agreed to be interviewed provided their full names weren't used.

"The hardest thing for me to do here is to maintain my behavior," said Cherise, 16. "I've had to learn to adapt to different personalities.

"When I was home I could just walk away when there was a problem. You have to deal with it here."

Cherise has been at VisionQuest since October. She was sent there because of curfew violations and difficulties with her mother, she said.

Marisole, 14, was a runaway. She behaved badly when she was home, but said she has learned now how to behave better.

"I'm looking forward to going home to my mother," she said.

Melissa R., 15, was accused of stealing a car and was a runaway.

"I've learned a lot since I've been here. Now I know I can turn my life around," she said.

Melissa L., also 15, hated school.

"I was dumb when I was there. Now I'm getting straight As. I know I can do the same when I go home again," she said.

Terrence Burton, a VisionQuest program director, said many young people will return to the same unhealthy home life they left.

But things may be better because of their VisionQuest experiences, Burton said.

"We've given them tools so they can cope better."

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