Bryce Emineth, Nick Erickson, and Evan Gowen

By Rhonda Gowen

Christmas has a way of sneaking up on you — even in February.

Last year, my son Evan, his two confirmation classmates and I went to Pride Manchester House for a service project. The three boys, Evan, Nick and Bryce, met at our church to prepare eight Valentines with gift cups of pencils and candy. We drove from the church toward the facility, a psychiatric residential treatment center, which that year housed eight boys. I missed the correct turn, but Nick helped me get back on track since his family often drove through that neighborhood. We parked in the back and tromped around the building to ring the doorbell. A young teacher answered the door. I had called ahead a couple times, but they weren’t expecting us for the Sunday 1:00 appointment. Thankfully, she allowed us in anyway. Once we were in the entry, the greeter asked if we wanted to give the treat cups directly to the boys ourselves or let the staff present them. “Whatever’s easiest for you,” I said, but Nick would have none of it. “We’ll give them to the boys,” he piped up. “We want them to see us.” She nodded and we proceeded past walls decorated with froggies to a larger area. In a few moments we were facing eight attentive boys seated cross-legged on the rug.

Now Evan, Nick and Bryce each had a gemstone heart sticker shining like a fresh pimple on his forehead, remnants of the card preparations. One of the Manchester boys asked about the stickers. Nick again said, “We just wanted to show the Valentine spirit, to pass it around.” His answer satisfied the curious one; the Manchester boys seemed very happy with the surprise visit and, of course, with the stashes of candy.

After we got back to the car, Nick said, “Well, that did my heart good.” I did a quick double take. A seventh grader said what?

Later having dropped Bryce and Nick back with their parents, I reflected on how the three confirmation boys anticipated the meeting with the Manchester kids. As we were printing messages on the cards, Bryce was particularly creative with wording. One line I recall — because he asked me if he should use it — “Watch over the little things now, because later they’ll be big things.” Not sure what he meant, I asked, “Can you give me an example?” He said,” My sister is little now, but one day she will be older and grown up.”

As I considered the Manchester boys’ situation, I couldn’t imagine being away from home at that age, with no parents to ask advice or get help. Floundering at sea I’d be. I recently spoke with Mindy Norton, Family & Volunteer Coordinator at the school. She said the students, boys or girls, are accepted at the Manchester House between ages 5 and 13. They may have been placed there by parents, their school, or social services as a result of unacceptable or violent behavior. A child stays at the House an average of five months; some children stay as few as two and some up to twelve months. The children have emotional, mood, impulsive or attachment disorders.

Before admitting a student to the school, Transition Coordinator Bryan Winterberg ensures that other services have been tried since Manchester House is considered the last resort in the child’s treatment. Mindy said, once admitted, the students engage in a mixture of testing, behavior plans, and psychological and family therapy. Further she said, when the students are ready, they have an individual education plan and transition to a day treatment school, receiving the services of a paraprofessional aide. Students might also arrive at the House when transitioning from out-of-state facilities.

By evening back at our house, my son Evan, true to form, had said nothing about the whole outing. Since I had heard no response, I asked at the supper table, “What did you think of Manchester House?” His immediate response was, “I thought it’d be, like, they would climb all over me.” In fact, they were absolutely calm and attentive. It was as though he was looking in the mirror at a rational human being. So went my son’s introduction to children of emotional distress.
In spite of the growing favor of online education, my offline enlightenment sprang up far from a mouse or keyboard. First, I saw and felt within myself how some youth and adults view with uneasiness their more unfortunate peers; I saw how insightful and sensitive young people can be; and not least, I saw firsthand how hidden is the nature of emotional abuse. Next time I volunteer to transport “three kings” bringing gifts to “Baby Jesus”, I’m going to have a little more respect for the Star guiding them. It was right all along. The “Christ Children” were there, cross-legged on the rug.