“What are you going to do for my son?” This was the plea of an anguished newly-single parent about her suicidal 12-year old son. Fortunately, she asked someone who cared.
Michael C. Henkel started working at the Westmoreland County Juvenile Detention Center in 1978 and a year later he accepted a teaching position there. In 1982, he began serving as an Associate Pastor at a local church and held both positions for the next ten years. Mike met the woman mentioned above at the altar one Sunday morning and made a commitment to help. However, the little guy proved to be a handful. When Mike got together with the mother to discuss progress a month later, he told her “You don’t have to worry about your son committing suicide. I’m going to kill him.”
Six months later the boy was still alive, Mike’s hairline was receding and a threesome was formed – another young fellow didn’t have a dad, either. When the threesome became a foursome and then a fivesome, help and training was sought from Youth Guidance, Inc. where Mike met Paul Harbison, Outdoor Recreation Specialist for the Coalition for Christian Outreach. In 1984 they went on their first real wilderness trip, twelve days of backpacking and rock climbing in West Virginia. It rained for eleven days straight. The kids learned to appreciate hot food, home and dry clothes. Mike loved it.
By 1985, Mike was volunteering personal time and money to lead wilderness trips for teenage boys from single parent families. He recruited Gene Giernacky from the youth ministry of his church to help. Meanwhile, he began to accept informal referrals from the juvenile probation office in Westmoreland County. Funds were supplied by Youth Guidance and the church until budget cuts occurred in 1986. Soon after, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Larry Mason approached Mike about some young fellows he wanted to send on a wilderness trip. Informed about the lack of funds, the resourceful Mason recommended a contractual agreement with Westmoreland County for the purchase of services. A license had to be obtained from the Department of Public Welfare. Easier said than done, but they had come too far to turn back now.
For four years, 1987-1990, the program operated on a part-time basis. Mike and Gene were joined by Dan Mularski, another veteran youth minister and Michael McKay, an untamed Scotsman ripe for adventure. Trips were conducted during the summer and over the school-year holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. The battle cry was “to the fullest!” and the students developed character in the face of incredible challenges. The program became more structured and an academic component was added. Gradually, some canoes and outdoor gear were accumulated. The staff even got paid occasionally, and they all loved what they were doing.
Michael C. Henkel received the Meritorious Service Award from the Juvenile Court Judge’s Commission in 1990 for “outstanding service to Pennsylvania’s youth and community” and in November of that year, the Outside In School of Experiential Education, Inc. was formed as a private 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. A twelve bed residential program was established to expand on the short-term trips, as requested by juvenile court. A 140-acre farm near Ligonier was purchased through the generosity of the foundation community in 1993. Since then, Outside In has been gradually expanding services and improving program quality. An aftercare program exists to facilitate the transition back to home, school and community. A weekend supervision program serves as an alternative to out-of-home placement for boys with less serious problems. A formal system for measuring outcomes was established in 1997 and in 1999, the Pennsylvania Association of Probation, Parole and Correction honored Outside In as “Program of the Year”.
Two new programs were introduced in 2000 as the Pathway To Recovery Substance Abuse Project. The Outside In campus expanded to include a residential drug and alcohol program with capacity for 24 adolescent boys. At the same time, we developed Community Based Family Services (CBFS), offering an array of client-friendly family services. CBFS added an outpatient clinic to address a broad spectrum of substance abuse needs in the community. In 2006 we opened a second drug and alcohol clinic in Fayette County providing enhanced outpatient services and in 2009, in cooperation with the University of Miami and the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission, we introduced Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) to the area. MDFT is an evidence-based, SAMHSA “Best Practice” drug and alcohol program serving adolescents in a family context.
Back to residential services, in 2001 we added a new educational facility for our on-campus private school. In 2003 we added a Counseling Center, a Family Center, and an Expedition Center. The new Recreation Center was completed in 2004 and is being used for gym class and therapeutic activities. In 2006 we introduced a Title I Summer School Program and restructured our Special Education services. Thanks again to the incredible foundation community here in Western Pennsylvania we completed a capital campaign in 2007, raising over $1.2 million dollars for facility expansion and upgrade. Two new 12-bed cabins opened on November 2007, increasing our residential capacity to 60. Three more classrooms and a new wing for counseling rooms and offices were completed in August 2008.
Finally, after eighteen months of preparation, we are proud to announce that as of March 26, 2009 Outside In’s behavioral healthcare services are accredited with the Council on Accreditation for Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF). CARF accreditation applies to both inpatient and outpatient substance abuse services and compliments our long standing accreditation with the American Camp Association covering our outdoor and residential operations.
Much has changed but Outside In is still just looking for an opportunity to serve. Our expansion has never been driven by ambition but always by responding to a request for help. To keep our focus we ask the same question over and over, ‘What can we do for this kid, this family, today?” The field trips still provide the spice for residential treatment, taking the “enrichment” concept to a whole new level. We visit fascinating historic sites, farms, and wilderness areas. The intrinsic stimulation of the outdoors and the life-changing power of experiential processes make our work both engaging and effective. Wasn’t it Longfellow who said “Young men should travel, if for nothing but the adventure”?
Our task stands before us with more clarity, and more urgency, than ever. Spend some time with us and you’ll see our optimism runs deep and hope abounds. The Outside In mission to youth and families is inspired by John 10:10 and aptly captured in the proclamation “Understanding what is right, choosing what is best – life to the fullest!”