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The Home For Little Wanderers Moves Out of JP

Costs, space and the evolution of child welfare services cited as behind the decision.

Recently, its landmark Jamaica Plain facility. The Residential School it houses will be moved to The Home’s 166-acre Longview Farm property in Walpole when construction of several new buildings is complete — likely in 2013.

Patch toured the Knight Children Center with Lisa Rowan-Gillis, V.P. of development and public relations; Heather MacFarlane, public relations manager; and Megan Dwyer, principal; to see the center and get a better understanding of the decision.

“It’s sad for us too, but it’s an economic reality," said Rowan-Gillis. "We cannot waste a dollar of what the state gives or of the philanthropic gifts we receive.” 

Much-needed renovations to the original KCC building would have been prohibitively expensive, and consolidating the facilities represents a $1 million annual cost savings, she said.

To many — especially in JP — the Knight Children’s Center is the most visible program of The Home, but, Rowan-Gillis noted, “It is just one program. We’re trying to care for as many children and families as we can with the funds we have.”

Rowan-Gillis said the sale of the center was not a result of the economic downturn.

“Even without the economic situation, it would not have been economically responsible” to continue here, she said.

Currently, KCC houses residential and day treatment programs as well as a year-round, special education school that prepares children ages five to 13 to return to a less-restrictive classroom setting.

Most of the children who live and study here have experienced severe abuse that has left them with multiple serious behavioral issues and/or mental health issues, Home representatives said.

From her experience, Rowan-Gillis said the children tend to be incredibly verbal and articulate about their situation, their relationships to others and their needs.

The Facility at 161 Huntington Ave. consists of three buildings: the residence, built in 1987; the original building, built in 1914, which is home to the school, the library and some support services; and a 1950s addition that houses offices.

Though goes back 200 years, the organization has always been innovative. The deteriorating building, with its long window-less hallways and hospital ward sensibility doesn’t seem compatible with The Home’s modern focus on giving children new experiences and preparing them for life in their own homes and community schools.

“The building tends to take a beating” and even the newest part of the KCC—the residence—shows significant wear and tear, said Rowan-Gillis.

The new cabins and school will be built with better, more environmentally-friendly materials. Situated as it will be on The Home’s Longview Farm property, the children will be surrounded by open space — a far cry from the current yard separated from traffic by a low wrought-iron fence.

“I honestly believe that the plan we’ve come up with is a better plan for the kids,” says Rowan-Gillis, who holds an masters in social work and is a former social worker. She ticks off a list of the benefits Longview offers, including gardens and a project adventure ropes course.  

“Kids are riding on tractors — kids who never knew a tomato came out of the earth," she said. "The exposure they’re having is more healing.”

The decision to consolidate the facilities is not based on the advantages of the Walpole site alone. Nor is it solely an economic one. How the Home does its work is evolving. 

“The child welfare landscape is shifting away from residential treatment," she said. "There are fewer residential referrals. The Home is in agreement with the state’s mandate that children should not grow up in residential treatment.”

“We’ve gotten better at doing the work in a shorter time," Rowan-Gillis continued. "Our community-based programs are growing while residential ones are contracting. There will always be a need for residential care but what that critical mass is is still being worked out.”

Kids will go back to a family — that is the goal — so even The Home’s residential programs provide services for the family, she said. More and more, the boundaries between being a client of The Home and not being one are porous. Children and their families can get more services when they need them and less — or none — when they don’t, she said.

The Home remains the largest provider of mental health services in the Boston Public Schools and offers 15 other community-based programs hospitals, clinics and the homes of the families it serves.

Ground has already been broken in Walpole. While construction proceeds, the children at KCC continue to learn and grow through a variety of rich activities such as evening piano lessons and an annual themed art project called Voices and Visions.

The building is on the market. MacFarlane said she does not know what might end up in the space, which, though it is not a national historic landmark, is certainly a JP landmark. She did say the building is licensed for medical office space, however.

The Home will maintain its headquarters in the Symphony area of Back Bay. Each year, the organization accepts donations of holiday toys for distribution to all The Home’s children. Rowan-Gillis said The Home is still looking for a new space in JP for its seasonal toy room, where the toys are collected and stored. 

“It’s a holiday tradition for so many people — we don’t want to let that go," she said.

Though The Home has chosen the children of today over the building of yesterday, The Home will take a little bit of the 1914 building’s storied history to the new location. The round stained-glass window that served as the backdrop for visits by luminaries including Bob Hope and Ted Kennedy, will be built into the new school. 

Gretchen Grozier September 04, 2011 at 12:24 PM
I find this so sad. The Home was founded in the North End to serve the children of Boston and now they are leaving. It's too bad they cannot serve children and families in a space within the City. Most of the other institutions on South Huntington have figured out how to update and renovate.

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