Green Chimneys: Honoring History, Looking Ahead

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October 12, 2016

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For any organization, a milestone anniversary prompts thoughtful looks back and ambitious ideas for the future. And “passing the baton” offers the opportunity for important perspectives, both old and new. As we approach Green Chimneys' 70th Anniversary in 2017, we share some insights from our esteemed leadership: Founder Dr. Samuel B. Ross, Jr., longtime Executive Director Joe Whalen and incoming executive director, Dr. Edward Placke:

What is as true about Green Chimneys today as when the organization began?

SBR From the beginning we were determined to deliver the best care we knew we wanted to provide, and that has not changed. In our early days, residents did not have the living quarters we offer today; we did not have the academic buildings we have today; we did not have day students. But our services and our commitment to students and their families today, are as strong as they were then, if not more so. It is also no secret that my original focus was on the integration of humans and animals for the betterment of both. Over the years, the human-animal connection has been – and will remain – a core component of our healing and growing process.

JW What is most similar between now and 70 years ago is that parents are very involved at intake and in the care of their children. It allows us to partner in a much better way with parents to create good outcomes for their children. We also still have the great love of the outdoors and farm environment!

EP It’s probably almost 15 years ago that I first became aware of Green Chimneys, when I was Assistant Commissioner of Education for New York State. Green Chimneys was one of our many programs that educated kids with disabilities K-12 and was viewed to be the gold standard.

What should people know about the key role played by the animals in the education and therapy of the children?

SBR We have known both scientifically and anecdotally, that children often respond to animals in ways that they can't with people. Human-animal contact helps to bring out a nurturing instinct and learning to care for animals can develop a sense of responsibility and concern for others that some children have not been able to experience. What this enables in a child’s development is truly marvelous.

JW Green Chimneys’ Farm & Wildlife Center has become one of the top facilities in this country, and maybe the world, in modeling human-animal education and therapeutic activities. We are very proud of this aspect of our program and its success within our residential treatment center and special education school. I have always had animals, the outdoors and gardening in my life and joining Green Chimneys was a natural fit. Developing our organic farm, wildlife center and farm programs has been an extremely positive aspect of my time here.

What are some key considerations for leading Green Chimneys into the future?

EP I think when you look at our educational system, particularly special education, there are two items that are key; enhancing the literacy of people with disabilities [in reading, writing, mathematics] as well as getting them career- and college-ready. Green Chimneys has a wonderful foundation to create a very strong career development and occupational studies program, CDOS, which has a wide range of variables. It can mean taking a career and technical education class, it can be volunteer work, it can be doing job shadowing, it could be paid employment.

SBR One approach does not suit all. This is one of the hardest things to accomplish since we offer more than a regular school. It should be possible – it is necessary – to design a program that increases opportunities in and outside the classroom. Experiential education with a strong emphasis on life skills and vocational development is critical for students who may not go on to college.

JW Our education, clinical, residential and community-based programs must grow to better meet the demands of the population of children we serve in allowing them to compete successfully once back in their communities. Our setting is rich in opportunities for our students to develop the skills necessary to succeed in their communities. Providing pathways to meaningful work is critical and our goal is to expand our services in this area going forward.

What is important for people to understand about children, or the families of children, with special needs?

JW Children with special needs and their families want the same things most, if not all, families want for their children: to be happy and feel valued in what they can accomplish. Many of the children that come to Green Chimneys have felt little success in their schools or community and we feel one of our priorities is to change that paradigm and provide skills that help them to see that they have value and can experience success.

EP That they want their children to succeed, they would like their children to be independent, and live a productive adulthood. And that’s where the K-12 system comes in to help prepare a youngster, and their family, for that type of level of independence. For a parent of a child with a disability, navigating the state system is not easy. It’s imperative that schools and school districts provide families with the roadmap to help them ensure their child or young adult gets what he or she needs. It’s a difficult map to navigate and I think that’s something Green Chimneys does very well.

What has brought you the most joy and/or inspiration in your career?

EP In the simplest terms, it’s a high school graduation. I’ve been involved now in about 25 high school graduations and that is the highlight of every school year.

SBR I enjoy that I am still able to work. I love the children. I am thankful that my family is still very involved. I hope that we will increase support from many others so Green Chimneys will be here forever.

JW In my 45 years, the one thing that brings tears to my eyes is seeing alumni in their 20s come to visit with their partner, and maybe their son or daughter. Seeing them show the place where they experienced success or recognized their worth in a way that told them they will make it. It is clear that their experience was important enough to share with the people they love, and the importance of sharing it is significant to me, and to all of us who work at Green Chimneys.

What’s the funniest thing a student ever said to you?

JW Not the funniest but the best thing I hear being said to my staff, and sometimes to me, is “Thank you.” I know that my staff really earned that thank you and it is appreciated.

SBR I always get a laugh when a student from 30 years ago asks to see a goat he took care of while here.

Throughout the year ahead, we'll be celebrating this remarkable milestone.
Visit the upcoming events page and plan when you'll join the celebration >

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