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 Decision to Close Home Questioned as General Describes New Program

June 17, 2009 - Several dozen people filled the shelter house at Sunset Park last week, anxious to learn more about a National Guard program for at-risk youth that is scheduled to move to the grounds of the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home in 2010.

The Adutant General of Indiana, Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, began the evening by telling the crowd he had just spent the day driving around the Knightstown area, even paying a visit to the Hoosier Gym. He said he loved small towns and believed they're "what makes America strong."

With many of those in attendance former employees of the ISSCH or members of the Home's alumni association, Umbarger said he understood there were "a lot of emotions … in this room tonight." However, he said he believed the ISSCH, which State Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe closed in late May, will provide a great location for the National Guard's Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy.

"I think it would be a great fit to do it here," Umbarger said. At the end of the meeting, he said he hopes people in the Knightstown community will be as proud of the HYCA as they were of the Home.

Wayne Hill, director of the HYCA, provided details about the program, which is open to high school drop outs between the ages of 16 and 19. He said the 17 and-a-half month program begins wtih two weeks that are "kind of like a mini boot camp," followed by a five-month residential stay in a "quasi-military" environment, and ending with a 12-month mentoring phase.

According to Hill, during the residential phase, the teens spend three-and-a-half hours a day working on academics, with a goal toward earning a GED, and the same amount of time working on "core components." The latter, he said, includes things like responsible citizenship, job skill training, and life-coping skills like crisis and anger management and conflict resolution.

The program's participants will also be required to complete at least 40 hours of community service during their residential stay. The HYCA's current graduating class of 72, Hill said, contributed over 3,400 hours of community service.

Hill said the program currently has 48 employees, including three teachers and one lead instructor, with about half of employees working to provide round-the-clock supervision. He estimated that the total yearly payroll for the program's employees was just over $1 million.

While Hill said he hoped to bring his current staff with him, he said some may not want to come here due to the distance from their homes. If that happens, he said there will be a need to hire some new employees. Umbarger also added that the National Guard plans to retain some ISSCH employees for the HCYA, including six responsible for the Home's boiler, as well as some security and maintenance workers.

Bruce Trump, a former teacher at the Home's Morton Memorial School, was the first person to speak up about the negative economic impact of the Home's closure. "You just took 180 jobs out of here - (Gov. Mitch) Daniels did," he said, "… and it's devastating this community."

"We are community based," Umbarger said. "We want to be part of Knightstown." He said the HYCA is an "extremely successful" program that has been "life-changing" for many of the participants, who, he said, gain self-confidence.

Trump also asked about the program's partipants, asking what percentage were on probation. Hill said 20 to 25 percent were referred to the program after being placed on probation for a variety of offenses, but added that the HYCA does not take applicants who have been charged with sex or weapons crimes, or other felonies.

One person asked whether the ISSCH campus would be available for alumni events. "I'm all about tradition and heritage," Umbarger said. "… I just love that type of stuff." He said the Home's alumni association would be welcome to continue holding an annual reunion on site.

Valerie Trump, president of the Knightstown Town Council, asked whether the negative impact the Home's closure would have on the town had been considered. She also asked what the expected time frame is for any growth and positive impact on the local economy, and whether the state would be paying for any remodeling.

Umbarger said he hoped the program would double in size with five years, and said he believed it would be the second nicest Youth ChalleNGe campus in the country, right behind one in Louisiana. While he said he didn't anticipate any new construction at the ISSCH site, Umbarger estimated there could be as much as $2 million in remodeling, which he said would be at the state's expense.

Clyde South, another member of the Knightstown Town Council, asked Umbarger how long the HYCA program will be at the ISSCH site. "I hope forever," Umbarger replied. Saying he didn't expect a reduction in the number of high school dropouts, he added, "… I can't imagine this program ever going away," later calling it "a growing industry."

South also asked whether the Daniels administration had given any thought to the economic impact that closing the Home would have on the Knightstown community. That question was fielded by Scott Stewart, Daniels' senior policy director.

"People think about that a great deal," Stewart said. Before the HYCA was proposed for the site, Stewart said there had been "no good, solid option" for the Home. A third Trump, Bruce and Valerie's daughter, Loren, asked about the educational level of the HYCA's employees. Hill said that varies depending on the position, but said the program's instructors do not have to be certified teachers.

In response to Loren Trump's follow-up question about how the HYCA will benefit her generation, Umbarger said, "The Home is being kept open. ... We hope to grow the jobs."

Diana Bossingham, president of the Home's alumni association, asked why the governor was opposed to a task force conducting a true study of the Home and the feasibility of keeping it open. She said the Indiana State Department of Health had not conducted a real study, as the agency had claimed, and said stakeholders like Home alumni and the American Legion had no involvement in the decision-making process. She said she didn't think Daniels had listened to the people's wishes with respect to this issue.

Darlene Foster, another alumnus of the Home, said there had been about 500 students at the Home when she attended it. She asked why the kids in the National Guard's program were more qualified to live at the Home than those that had been there.

"I think I understand the emotion in this room," Umbarger said. "… It was a decision the leaders of this state felt they had to make."

Valerie Trump asked why more value was being placed on the NGYC's Tier 2 education, which provides an opportunity to get a GED, as opposed to the Tier 1 educational program and regular high school diploma the Home had offered. She asked if was because of the federal financial support the National Guard program receives.

"You know," Umbarger said, "I don't know the answer to that."

The Banner asked whether the facility will still retain the name of the ISSCH. Umbarger was not sure, and said he would "like to talk to the leaders of the community a little bit about that."

 

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