Good Will-Hinckley prepares to revive mission

Posted Jan. 17, 2010, at 9:10 p.m.

HINCKLEY, Maine — Good Will-Hinckley, the longtime residential care facility for homeless and at-risk youths in Maine, is at a crossroads. Except for a small day-school program, the historic facility is shuttered, its sprawling 2,450-acre campus on the Kennebec River idled, largely due to changes over time in public policy and funding.

Supporters say they are leaving no stone unturned in the search for a solution that will bring Good Will-Hinckley back to life, serving the displaced, disturbed, disruptive and disadvantaged youths who have been at the heart of its humanitarian mission since it was established in 1889.

The complex work of rebuilding the program is under way, with a preliminary report scheduled for presentation to the board of directors later this month.

The shutdown

“We were losing money every day,” interim Executive Director Natalie Jones said in a recent interview. Central to the collapse of the program was a series of policy changes at the state and federal levels, she said. Those changes refocused funding away from group residential settings and foster care and toward a system that makes it a priority to reunite juveniles with their families. In addition, Jones said, the national economic downturn cut into overall funding and eroded private endowments that helped pay for some youngsters to attend the Good Will-Hinckley program.

Last June, the program graduated about a dozen high school seniors. Then it suspended its residential services, sending 46 vulnerable or hard-to-handle teens from around the state to other group facilities or foster homes, or back into conflicted family situations. More than 100 employees — teachers, counselors, maintenance workers, administrative staff and more — lost their jobs.

The shutdown emptied the extensive campus of residential cottages where youngsters lived in familylike settings with live-in “cottage parents.” It idled historic structures such as the Prescott Memorial auditorium and dining center and the 1906 Carnegie Library. It closed the Averill Middle School, the Alfond High School and the Alfond Recreation Center, centerpieces of the organization’s educational and recreational programming.

In its heyday, as many as 300 boys and girls lived and went to school at Good Will-Hinckley. Now, about 20 local youngsters attend an academic day program located in a section of the high school building. Other than that, a small administrative and maintenance staff, and a handful of spaces that are being leased to private groups and individuals, the campus essentially is empty.

Complying with the mission

The mission of Good Will-Hinckley was articulated by its founder, George W. Hinckley, in October 1889.

“The purposes of this organization shall be to provide a home for the reception and support of needy boys and girls who are in need of a home and a helping hand, to maintain and operate a school for them and to attend to the physical, industrial, moral and spiritual development of those who shall be placed in its care; its spirit to be evangelical without being sectarian.”

That mission has remained at the core of the organization’s operations ever since, watchdogged by an attentive network of overseers, directors, administrators and alumni. One notable exception: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, directors attempted to boost shrinking revenues by renaming the campus “the Hinckley School” and opening it up to private, mainstream prep school students in addition to its traditional population of disadvantaged Maine youths. The board was sued by the Good Will-Hinckley Home Association, the governance body that oversees the nonprofit. The lawsuit focused on the board’s failure to comply with the mission of providing a home to needy youths.

Since that time, Good Will-Hinckley has toed the charitable line, developing therapeutic social and educational programming for juveniles who, by and large, are wards of the state and who call the campus home. While financial times have not always been easy, the nonprofit facility has stayed mostly solvent and on track, rely-ing heavily on state funding and a substantial patchwork of public and private philanthropy.

But in the early years of the last decade, state and federal child welfare policies started shifting funding away from providing institutional care for troubled youngsters and toward placing them in the supervised care of their extended families. At the same time, public funding for home- and school-based therapeutic services began to erode, reflecting an unstable stream of state and federal tax revenues and the priorities of a conservative administration in Washington, D.C. In 2008, the national financial downturn delivered a crippling blow to the organization’s operations.

“We had been trying to find other funding sources for many years,” said Dave Kimball, president of the Good Will-Hinckley Home Association. “An awful lot of work was going on. The rug just got pulled out very quickly from under us.”

Good Will-Hinckley lurched through the 2008-09 school year, graduated a last class of seniors — many of whom had been accepted to college — and closed up shop.

Looking to the future

In September 2009, a seven-member “strategic action committee” was formed, charged with developing recommendations for Good Will-Hinckley’s future. Committee chairman and former GWH board member Larry Sterrs says the group — made up of former board members and representatives of the larger community — de-cided to draw on the collective wisdom of public officials, private agencies, lawmakers, donors, former students, former employees and others who over time have been connected with the organization.

“It is important to get feedback from all these various groups,” Sterrs said. “It is clear that the type of care that has been provided at Good Will-Hinckley is not necessarily required going forward.” Through group conferences, one-on-one meetings, and an online survey, Sterrs said, the committee has gathered a range of perspec-tives and suggestions that will be presented later this month to the board of directors and then distilled into more specific recommendations for the future of the organization.

While Sterrs said it would be premature to speculate on any specific direction in which Good Will-Hinckley may move in the near future, he said it is likely to include a “more contemporary interpretation” of the organization’s mission of providing services to youngsters in need. That could include providing more services off-campus and in the communities where youngsters live, he said, “but the focus of providing a home to people who need it will remain at the core.”

According to Superior Court Justice Donald Marden, a longtime member and the current chairman of the Good Will-Hinckley board of directors, the solution may include a modified version of the contentious prep school years that so angered the Good Will-Hinckley Home Association in the 1970s. The challenge, he said, is to develop programming that will attract troubled youngsters from families who can afford to pay privately for the experience, offsetting the cost of maintaining the physical campus and Good Will-Hinckley’s historic charitable mission.

“We think that’s one of the areas we’ll have to look at seriously,” Marden said. “I suspect that what we’re going to find is that we will need to have programs that are supported by [private] revenues in order to keep the door open as a home in the sense that it always has been.”

Kimball, of the Good Will-Hinckley Home Association, said all options will be considered. Already, he said, a number of business ventures have been proposed to help maintain the mission and the physical infrastructure of the organization, including establishing a campground on the scenic campus, providing subsidized senior housing, and more.

By April, he said, the association hopes to have a workable plan in hand.

“Seven or eight years ago, we knew there were risks involved in being funded primarily by the state,” he said. “We have been working on this for several years. Our goal is to serve kids in need, and sometimes you have to redefine it. That’s the puzzle: How do we get back into the business of serving kids?”

On the Web: www.gwh.org

BDN writer Meg Haskell attended The Hinckley School in 1969-70 and formerly served on the Good Will-Hinckley development committee.

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