George Bernard Shaw said, "In heaven, an angel is nobody in particular." But things are different here on Earth. And in Peoria, some angels are doing very special work with some of the most challenged youths in Illinois.
"You can't save everyone; you've got to recognize that at the outset," explains Guardian Angel Home Program Coordinator Jim Kleine. "We deliver a number of services, but our primary goal is to provide a safe haven for kids who have come from very bad situations. For us, ‘success' means having a child return safely to his community, rather than going to another institution or entering the criminal justice system."
A long-term residential treatment facility for boys aged six to 18, the Guardian Angel Home in Peoria, Illinois, is run by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Peoria. (The on-grounds school functions scholastically as part of the Peoria School District.) The home primarily takes boys referred by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services-young men who often have been abused or neglected, and who usually present significant mental health, emotional and behavioral issues.
To meet their social and emotional needs, the Guardian Angel Home provides a structured environment that focuses on therapeutic relationships. The home delivers a host of services, such as food and shelter; individual, family, and group counseling; independent-living preparation; and medical and dental services. According to Kleine, though, one element provides a particularly positive influence on the boys.
"The teachers are with them all the time. And they do a fantastic job. Before they got here, most of these kids experienced school as a crowded, anonymous battleground. Here they have a teacher, a teacher's aide, and at most eight children in a class. That close attention is very beneficial.
"Behavior isn't the only issue. Most of the boys are way behind academically too. That's understandable; when survival itself is an issue, studies take a backseat. So, not only do our teachers handle kids who have been preconditioned against school, but they also have to teach material from all of the grades to kids of every age in mixed classrooms. That's very difficult."
Guardian Angel lead teacher Karen Lune cites the program's comprehensive approach as its most beneficial feature. Equipped with a battery of resources and substantial support, the home does provide a safe learning environment. According to Lune, though, another unique element really helps.
"We have an adopt-a-school partner-the Peoria office of AECOM. Their employees are active in our students' lives. We pair each child with an employee, first as pen pals. They write back and forth every two weeks and, over time, develop a pretty close relationship. The pen pals also visit us every other week. Though primarily educational, the pen pal program also gives the kids a sense of belonging, a connection to someone who cares about them. Many of these kids have never had that."
The local office of AECOM joined Peoria's district-wide adopt-a-school program in 1995. A global architecture and engineering firm with more than 43,000 employees, AECOM fully supports the Peoria office's involvement in the program. And according to AECOM's Guardian Angel point person, Assistant Project Engineer Kerri Borlin, the employees love working with the kids. "We were lucky to be assigned to the Guardian Angel Home. The school only has about 16 kids, so we can really get to know them."
Borlin continues, "The company purchases tickets to send the boys to a play at the Peoria Civic Center each fall, and to the symphony in the spring. Our read-aloud volunteers visit the classroom regularly, and our pen pal volunteers bring treats and presents for Christmas and Valentine's Day parties. We also host the students at our office. Every Halloween we bring them in for a tour. Everyone-kids and employees alike-dresses up and the kids trick-or-treat at each cubicle. We treat them to a potluck lunch with their pen pals, and then send them back to school with huge bags of candy. But the big event is the year-end celebration at a Chiefs' game."
"The Peoria Chiefs are a minor league baseball team in the Chicago Cubs franchise," explains Guardian Angel pen pal Jim Ash, a senior project landscape architect with AECOM. "Before the game, we take the kids to Bradley Park for a picnic. We always go on free-peanuts-and-hot-dog day so the kids can have as much as they want. They really love that. But the most important thing, by far, is the time we get to spend together."
"These events all involve spending time-something these kids really need," adds Ash. "Society has basically written them off. But if you give them a little time and attention, you'll find they're just normal kids. That's the most important lesson I've gotten from this program: never give up on a child.
"I visited my new pen pal-a kid dealing with a lot of issues-at the last Valentine's Day party. During the party, the kids were learning origami. Although I'm pretty deft with pencil and paper, origami is beyond me. But my kid did it like an artist. Then he taught me how to do it. I got as much out of that visit as he did."
An eight-year veteran of the program, Ash applauds Borlin's coordination efforts and the work of the Guardian Angel team. For both sides, though, the greatest benefit of the program is the intense personal involvement.
"This isn't a blind donation or a hollow gesture," explains Lune. "The AECOM folks are really involved. And they really care about the kids. Whenever we need something, Kerri and AECOM are always willing to help. It's a great partnership."
"These are normal kids," Kleine adds. "They just weren't dealt the same cards most of us got. Even though we're not always successful, we can reach a lot of these kids. And we'll always keep them safe."
Shaw said, "In heaven, an angel is nobody in particular." On Earth, however, things are different. And in Peoria, "Guardian Angel" has a very special meaning. iBi
Arthur Schurr is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.