Green Chimneys Alumni: Forging Ahead

November 2, 2021

Many like to say that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. This is remarkably true for several youths who attended Green Chimneys, successfully returned to their home communities, and are now carving out their future paths.

Dennis, Matt and Nick each arrived at Green Chimneys after experiencing social, emotional and behavioral challenges that became obstacles to their personal and academic development at home and school. Their time at Green Chimneys was supported by individualized education and treatment plans that built on their strengths, and the many staff who contributed to their growth. It became possible for these students to discover meaningful outlets, new areas of interest, and ways to cope with the emotions and behaviors that historically held them back. Today, Dennis, Nick and Matt have begun to pursue desired careers through college and vocational programs, each drawing upon the skills they learned.

Building Relationships

Dennis once shared in an essay his struggle to make friends, manage his anger, and feel like he could fit in. After years of frustration with school and peer relationships, coming to Green Chimneys became a turning point for him. “They taught me how to say how I was feeling and how to ask for help to calm down,” he says of his dorm staff. “After some time I also started to learn how to calm myself and avoid getting that frustrated. It was at this time that I really started to learn in school.” Dennis recalled that people had been afraid of him because of his behavior so he never had friends. “It was at Green Chimneys that I finally learned how to be friends with others and enjoy spending time playing.”

Dennis, 2021

The confidence and coping skills Dennis gained helped him return to his home school district, where he received great support from teachers and, from newly developed friendships. Dennis graduated high school with a Regents diploma, a BOCES certificate in Digital Media Production, and this fall he began the graphic arts program at Suffolk College in Riverhead, NY. He takes piano lessons on Fridays, has his learner’s permit, and is working on a logo design for a local gym that caters to kids with autism. Dennis recognizes that so many people helped him arrive at this point: “I have learned many skills that I will use throughout life and I have been taught that hard work does pay off. I will miss everyone but they will always be part of who I am.”

Finding Outlets, Discovering Strengths

Matt and his family speak openly about the ways Green Chimneys helped, and how Matt forged ahead in his growth. His mother, Marybeth, once recounted her experience with her son’s struggles saying, “I believed love could conquer all. I believed I could fix my son. There were multiple schools, hospitalizations, medications and behavioral plans that did not work.” Stepping back and having your child live away from home is a difficult transition but it’s an opportunity for the child to have a different experience, a greater level of support, and a plan that is uniquely designed for their needs.

Matt points to the challenge of being away from home and the aspects of Green Chimneys that made it easier: “The animals were something that I really enjoyed; it helped me get through the process of being away from home, more than anything. The social workers helped by introducing new stuff that made me more comfortable with being away, like the sensory room. I loved the behavior support staff, they built a relationship with me; and the basketball program really helped me.” Matt also discovered the drums at Green Chimneys and he was encouraged by music teacher Brian MacCarry; playing became a favorite pastime.

Matt, 2021

These personal connections and outlets were important to Matt’s experience at, and beyond, Green Chimneys. Upon returning to his home school district, Matt became a summer camp counselor, joined the football team, which brought a number of new friends, and he even reached out to a student in his town who had recently returned from Green Chimneys, to offer support for transitioning back to school. Matt is now a freshman at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, studying business and marine biology; he also plans to join ROTC. His advice to students new to Green Chimneys? “It can feel rough because it’s a new environment, you’re away from home, and you’re obviously struggling with something. Trust the people who are there to get you through it and work the problem, keep driving through it.”

Meaningful Connections

At Green Chimneys, Nick was a regular at the Farm & Wildlife Center, helping to tend to the animals and various needs around the farm, such as mending fencing on the giant tortoise’s enclosure. “The thing I found most helpful was the animals but the birds became my main focus,” Nick recalls. “I was one of the only kids allowed to hold the Harris hawk. He would act up with everyone but was as tame as can be when he was on the glove with me.” Handling birds of prey is not a common activity for Green Chimneys students; the patience and skill involved takes significant time to develop and applies to many capabilities that one might need in life.

Nick, 2021

Nick’s skills also earned him a role as mentor to younger students. Nick had been mentored at one point by an older student and really looked up to him. He felt proud to be chosen; he knew it was an honor to be asked. Nick also mentions his dorm staff, Ernest Santaniello, who played a big role in his eventual transition home. They used to end each day by saying, “Another day, another dollar.” It was an inside joke as they both got through another day at Green Chimneys but in a positive way, to quickly acknowledge a shared success.

Nick completed high school at home and has since focused on building his skills in order to find steady employment. He earned a Regents diploma, followed by a culinary certificate from BOCES in Islip, Long Island and this summer, took a job with a traveling carnival. “He learned to deal with kids who want to cut the line waiting for the three-story-high slide,” jokes his mother, Jennifer. “It was actually very physical, demanding work to set up and break down equipment. His employer gave him high marks and Nick did very well in a real job.”

The Individualized Approach

Green Chimneys is not a place where “one size fits most.” Each experience is built around the educational and therapeutic needs of the child, strengths are supported and enhanced, and in that process, aspirations and goals are explored. Transition planning starts early and together, in partnership with student and family, Green Chimneys helps map career or education ‘next steps’ that best match a student’s aptitude, strengths, and interests. Success may look different for each student, but each success is meaningful.  Learn more about the planning and partnership that guides each Green Chimneys student’s experience