by Sue Ann Rybak
Charles, 17, credits Carson Valley Children’s Aid (CVCA), 1419 Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown, an organization dedicated to delivering services to at-risk children, youth and families, with helping him get his life back on track. “My life was a mess before I came here,” he said. “I have been in and out of foster homes my whole life. I was adopted at birth with eight brothers and sisters. At the time, I just thought we were all family.”
After his adopted parents got divorced, Charles began acting out in school and at home. Then, when he was 13, his adoptive mother dropped him off at the Department of Human Services, abandoning her son to be with her new boyfriend.
After being kicked out of numerous foster homes and programs, Charles, then 15, soon found himself at CVCA’s residential program. “Back then, I really didn’t care,” he said. “I thought ‘Oh, I am placed. Big deal. I’ll go home eventually.’ A year passes, and you realize you are not home. I believe Carson saved me. Thanks to the relationships I formed here with the staff, I was gradually able to pull myself together.”
Charles is just one of CVCA’s many success stories. CVCA was originally established in 1917 as Carson College for Orphaned Girls by Robert N. Carson, a childless Philadelphia trolley magnate who modeled the school after Girard College. Carson donated $5 million and approximately 100 acres of his land at Erdenheim Stock Farm to create the campus and the school, which was later renamed The Carson Valley School in 1946.
In 2008, Carson Valley School and Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County merged to create Carson Valley Children’s Aid, which today provides comprehensive services to more than 12,000 people in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties.
Diane Kiddy, chief executive officer of CVCA, said Carson Valley offers a whole continuum of care including prevention, early intervention, foster care, community homes, group homes and supervised independent living in apartments. She said CVCA’s residential campus provides the highest level of care outside of a hospital or detention center. She said the facility’s first priority is to provide a safe space for kids.
“Many of them have been removed from their homes because there is physical, emotional, sexual abuse going on, sufficient neglect or issues relating to crime and drugs,” she said. “That’s why they are here. We provide the therapeutic intervention and support they need to stabilize them and help them focus on education.”
She said unfortunately what many people may perceive as a bad kid is really a scared kid. Research has shown that children who have repeatedly been exposed to trauma suffer from social, psychological, cognitive and biological issues, including difficulty regulating their emotions, paying attention and forming good relationships.
Joseph Griffin, CVCA’s campus director, knows first-hand some of the challenges the youth there struggle to overcome. He was separated from his parents and placed in multiple foster homes and shelters because of financial difficulties. Despite his difficult family situation, he said thanks to the “help of exceptional people,” he achieved many personal goals including being a star track athlete and high school graduate.
“Charles is speaking on behalf of a lot of teenagers here because a lot of kids are confused,” he said. “Many kids look at their home situation and think ‘Is it me?’ We have to remind them that ‘you didn’t do anything wrong.’ Charles was just being a typical teenager. What we try to do is love, mentor and protect them and give them a fighting chance. Charles is the example of what we hope to inspire all our students to become.”
Mike Renzi, a board member at CVCA, was just 15 when he first arrived there. As a resident at the school, he had to navigate “through the ins and outs of daily living in a house of 20 boys, not an easy task,” he said. “What was supposed to be a weekend visit turned into four years. When I first arrived at Carson Valley, I was very insecure and had little self-confidence. Through the support of the staff members there, I began to develop the skills I would need to take my life in a new direction.
“As a board member now [at CVCA], I get to see all the behind-the-scenes work that is accomplished by the dedicated staff and leadership of Carson Valley. My favorite time as a board member is when I have an opportunity to speak with the youth. The impact of sharing my story as a former resident having lived and played on the same grounds where they currently reside is amazing. It’s a reminder for myself of how far I have come.”
For more information, go to cvca-pa.org.