‘There’s always a second chance available for everyone’

Steena Hymes

February 1, 2014

“Twin Cedars is a burden to some and a gift to others. For me it has been a huge blessing and a second chance to turn my life around and further my education. My fifth grade teacher once told me ‘life’s barriers are only as big as you make them.’ Everyday I challenge myself to find the internal strength to conquer life’s barriers, no matter what size, and challenge current and future residents to do the same. No matter your race, religion, gender, country of origin or sexual orientation, you have the right to a second chance, so make the best of it. In the end, remember, if someone gives you a second chance, take it and run with it. No matter what the size.”

Above is a letter that a Bradfield Center client wrote to Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services as he was leaving the system and heading for independent life. Nick, 19, who spent a year and half at Bradfield and another four months at Connections, is now moving into his own apartment with a new job. He is just one of the many youths whose life Twin Cedars has changed.

What started out as an after school program in 1980, led by concerned citizens merged with the Anne Elizabeth Shepherd Home to create Twin Cedars.

The Bradfield Center is just one of the many programs offered by Twin Cedars. With over 20 programs in LaGrange, Columbus, Macon and Opelika, about 1,000 youths are served each year. LaGrange houses 11 of these programs.

The Bradfield Center, located at the former East Depot High School campus, serves sexually aggressive boys ages 9-17. Boys in this program live together in two cottages and attend an on-site school called Ault Academy.

Nick described the typical day as waking up at 6 a.m. to do hygienic routines and daily chores. At 7 a.m. breakfast is served and then at 8:30, they attend school until 2:30. The rest of the day is spent in individual and group therapy or in the recreation center where they have free time.

Twin Cedars Executive Director Mike Angstadt said through the center, they hope to teach basic social skills and eventually have them finish school and be able to return to family or live independently when they leave.

“We try to teach kids to set their own limits, to control impulses, to manage behavior so no one else has to manage your behavior,” he said.

Once residents have completed their time at Bradfield, they attend Connections, a step-down residential program for boys. Located on the same campus, Connections serves as a transition home that is less restrictive. Boys live mostly independently to prepare them for leaving the center. Most boys are in the system an average of 13 months Angstadt said.

“The work that we do with our sexually aggressive boys is so important because statistically we know that not all youth who have been victims will end up as offenders but almost all offenders were victims at some point and if we don’t intervene and break that cycle then they’re much more inclined to be adult offenders,” Lisa Wickers, Senior Marketing and Development Coordinator, said.

In what is called the Magnolias Neighborhood in LaGrange, the Annette Boyd Group Home provides residential care for girls 13-17. Unlike Bradfield, these girls attend public school.

On the Magnolias campus, Twin Cedars also houses the Second Chance Home for teen moms to live while they develop educational, vocational and life skills needed to become self-sufficient. Angstadt said teen moms tend to stay for long period of times so they can finish high school during and after their pregnancy.

Angstadt said there are a total of 180 youths between all the residential homes.

Youth referred to these homes are usually in state custody such as the Department of Family and Children Services or Department of Juvenile Justice. However, that is not necessary to live in one of the homes.

“One thing you can say, almost every youth we work with has experienced trauma,” Angstadt said.

One major key component to improving the lives of the youth is individual and group therapy. Clinical Therapist, Meredith Key specifically counsels the boys.

“One of the biggest challenges of working directly with the boys is a lot of times they come from systems that are struggling so we pull the out of the system and work with them,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re a puzzle piece and we kind of change the piece while they’re with us to figure out how to put them back with their families.” Key said ultimately, the goal is to put kids back with their families although some times that isn’t always the best option.

Another challenge is working with some of the agencies making policies for the kids as the policies don’t always coincide with what is therapeutically appropriate Key said.

Once they leave the program, there is a six-month follow up plan where Twin Cedars monitors clients to ensure they are successfully integrated back into society.

In addition to residential programs, Twin Cedar also has advocacy centers, foster care and an alcohol prevention initiative.

The alcohol prevention initiative which is located on the LaGrange Magnolias campus aims to reduce underage consumption and binge drinking. According to Angstadt, when the project started, the average age in Troup County when kids had their first drink was 12 years and five months. That age is now 13 years and six months. With their campaign “Be the Wall”, Twin Cedars is educating adults on how to stop underage drinking.

The newest initiative from Twin Cedars is called “Darkness to Light” which aims to prevent child sexual abuse. Starting in August, Darkness to Light uses the idea of the “tipping point” introduced by Malcolm Gladwell.

“The notion is if you change cultural values and perceptions and behavior, 5 percent of the adult population reach a tip and you can bring about systemic change throughout the whole county or group,” Angstadt said.

With that, Twin Cedars is training 5 percent of adults in Troup County to recognize signs of sexual abuse and how to respond responsibly. About 300 adults have been trained since August and 800 will be trained by the end of July. Angstadt said the goal is to train 2500 adults over the next three years.

In addition, this is the only evidence-based sexual abuse prevention program in the nation Angstadt said.

Darkness to Light ties in with the Coleman Community Center in LaGrange. The center serves as a one-stop-shop for forensic interviews for investigation into reported child sexual abuse. Advocates and representatives from all sides of the investigation come to the Coleman center so victims do not have to repeat their stories to several different people.

They also provide physical examinations for victims. The goal is make the process centered around the child to make them the most comfortable Wicker said.

Twin Cedars operates with a budget of $15 million, of which 85 percent of that comes from state contracts and state and federal grants. However, each year, it is responsible for raising $1.5-3 million to stay afloat. With fundraisers such as Behind the Mask, Twin Cedars garners a lot of support from the community.

In 2012, Twin Cedars was voted best large business by the Chamber of Commerce.

Nick, who wrote the letter above, said Twin Cedars opened his eyes to the changes he needed to live a successful life.

“There’s always a second chance available for everyone, Twin Cedars is a huge second chance to a lot of kids,” he said.