"This life is a test. It is only a test. Had it been an actual life, you would have received further instructions . . . ."
WHEN YOU LEAVE the hospital with a newborn baby, you are given free samples of disposable diapers, baby powder and formula. They tell you how to hold, feed and clothe this tiny human being. But where is the manual of parenting instructions?Most mothers and fathers learn parenting as they go along, using the methods their parents employed or following suggestions of child psychologists or pediatricians.
But what if the legacy from your parents is one of anger, of physical or sexual abuse, of alcoholism? What do you do if discipline, daily routine, even rudimentary etiquette was not taught to you along with the ABCs? How can you teach what you don't know?
Someone pays for this parental neglect - the children and society. Troubled and abused teens often end up in jail, on welfare or abusing and neglecting their children in a whole new round of generational abuse.
"Help one youth - help generations to come" has been the byword for Lila Bjorklund. In 1969 she organized the Utah Girls' Village (now Utah Youth Village), and by 1975 there were two group homes in Kearns where a quiet miracle began taking place.
Using the "teaching family model," developed as a result of a grant given by the National Association of Mental Health, Youth Village began changing society's throwaways into youths who have confidence, self-esteem and 3.7 grade-point averages. More than 85 percent of the youths successfully return home, to foster homes or go on to independent living. The treatment involves group living in a family setting where living skills are taught while emotional scars are healed.
In the Kearns home where Talon and Teri Greeff are family teachers, 15-year-old Thera and 17-year-old Ann are working toward independence.
When they get home from school about 3:30, there is a structured study hour. "I used to have really low grades," said Ann. "But I've learned how to study and do my homework. First quarter I got straight A's, the second quarter a 3.8 GPA. This time I might get a C, but I've learned that's all right. I've learned to do the best I can, but I won't be good at everything," she said. Ann, Thera and the other five girls in the north Kearns home had a combined 3.5 GPA for last quarter.
Thera says a lot of her old friends "would reprimand you for good grades or for doing good. It's OK now to be good, to be special and to get straight A's," she explained. With a self-assurance most 15-year-olds do not possess, Thera recalls the sidetrack her life underwent. "How would you feel if someone took you away from your family and friends? I've been in a lot of foster homes where they provided a roof over your head, food and clothes, but you never really had a chance to build a personal relationship. Some places, I was there only two months before I got ripped out," she said.
Thera will not be going back to her family when she has worked her way through the point-system and counseling of Youth Village. She will graduate in her junior year with extra zoology, science and math classes in preparation for a career as a veterinarian. She will be an apprentice for a local vet, which will cut two years from her six-year course of study.
Looking at this young woman who received four invitations to the senior prom and knows how to budget, shop and cook for the seven girls at her Kearns Village home - you'd not suspect that she has been through Alcoholics Anonymous and fulfilled 200-some hours of community service for an encounter with the law. "I've overcome acting out behaviors," she said.
"They are my family and friends all built into one," Thera says of her Village home. At my preliminary hearing I asked them to keep me here. Everybody likes me for who I am. You can be yourself here - there is a clean slate," she said.
Talon and Teri Greeff, the couple serving as family teachers in this Youth Village home, have two children, 2-year-old Jareth and Mikael, who just turned 1. The seven girls in this home are truly in a family environment, says Teri Greeff. "It helps a lot if someone is angry - the little kids calm them right down," she said.
The family includes pet white rats, guinea pigs and a small dog. Ann wants to work in child care and is grateful for the skills and knowledge she's developed. "I wasn't going to go to college. Now I know I have to have a license for day care. It's nice to have a goal to work for," she said.
Instead of one hour a week of counseling, the girls are living with their therapists. They are trained in a daily routine, with chores, homework, living skills and four positive reinforcements for every correction. Eric Bjorklund, executive director of Youth Village, said, "Our therapy is woven through the fabric of everyday life. Our family teachers target 10 teaching interactions with each girl every day during the 11/2 hours in the morning before they go to school and during the four to six hours each evening," he said. The family teachers follow research that has shown that positive praise should balance every correction.
Some of the skills begin with elementary things like how to meet someone,shake their hand and introduce yourself. How to disagree appropriately, how to accept criticism and the word "no," and how to follow instructions. Then problem solving is taught, accepting responsibility for actions and how to deal with peer pressure.
Bjorklund says additional studies show that seriously troubled kids feel better and perform more productively the more they have teaching interactions with an adult. The 4-1 positive teaching ratio is the key according to Bjorklund. "You may feel phony as all get out when you begin doing it, but within two weeks it's second nature."
The parenting skills that have produced twice the success rate of other treatment programs in Utah may soon be available to parents. Youth Village has plans for an educational center that will teach parents how to parent.
In addition to the village's two group homes in Kearns and in Sandy, Pleasant Grove and Price, there are a dozen therapeutic family homes where the family teachers utilize their own homes. The Utah Department of Social Services contracts with Youth Village to train all the structured foster parents in the state.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Along with these constitutional guarantees, all children should be granted a functional home. For all the throwaways, a chance to live at Youth Village and be hugged by Lila Bjorklund should also be part of the Bill of Rights.
Utah Youth Village luncheon, fashion shop
Where: Red Lion Inn Ballroom
When: Saturday, April 13, 12 noon
Cost: $30 per person ($20 tax deductible)
Features: In addition to showing fashions created and modeled by the young women of Youth Village, there will be a boutique and a raffle of two beautiful queen sized quilts with shams, a large porcelain doll and framed photography by Lou Braun.
Reservations: Please call Ardith Eakins at the Youth Village office, 262-9904.