Broken Boiler Freezes Out Kids in Crisis

By Dan Geringer – Originally published on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News on February 6, 2016. Click here to view the article on 

THE ANCIENT oil-burning boiler at Northern Children’s Services in Wissahickon broke down two days before last month’s winter storm, sending temperatures plunging into the 30s inside three buildings on the Ridge Avenue campus. 

Those three buildings house daily individual and group- therapy sessions for vulnerable children who have struggled with trauma and who depend on NCS for hours of psychological and emotional support after school every week.DailyNewsCover

All the children are from extremely low-income, Medicaid-eligible families. All are attempting to recover from personal crises in their young lives.

Two weeks after the blizzard, the boiler remains broken.

The buildings it heated, which include the gym and cafeteria, remain frigid and useless, and the children remain displaced, crowded into a makeshift environment in the one-room activity center.

NCS is trying to raise $200,000 through crowdfunding – – to replace the oil-burning boiler and add a backup gas-powered furnace.
More than 60 people contributed over $5,000 in the first nine days of the campaign, but NCS has a long way to go.

The agency, founded in 1853 as the Northern Home for Friendless Children to serve “innocent victims of social poverty,” moved to its Wissahickon campus in 1923. It offers residential and outpatient programs that serve thousands of children and families throughout the city.

When the boiler broke, NCS found itself between a rock and a hard place, money-wise.

The agency still is fund-raising to pay for the $4.6 million 2014 renovation and reopening of long-shuttered Merrick Hall, which increased NCS’s capacity so it could house up to 26 young mothers who were homeless or transitioning out of foster care and their children, said marketing manager Bonnie Dugan.

So it can’t suddenly launch a second capital campaign to pay for a new boiler, she said.

Ashley Murry, a staff psychologist, said the confinement of dozens of children to the converted garage that serves as the NCS activity center does not meet the needs for privacy and space that individual and group trauma-based therapy require.

“It impacts our clinicians and our kids,” she said. “We’re all kind of stuck in the one room, as opposed to having multiple areas to go to. The children have to be in the activity center all the time.

“We’re doing the best we can, but it’s harder, because the programs don’t have their separate spaces,” Murry said. “The kids miss their classrooms.”

Murry said the children miss the cafeteria where they normally eat hot meals, and the gym, where they had group activities like basketball on Fun Fridays.

“Without the gym,” Murry said, “group physical activities aren’t happening at all.”

Kevin Weber, the director of after-school programs, who has been at NCS for 34 years, said the daily 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. sessions help kids ages 7 to 13 who are having academic, emotional, and social difficulties.

“When you’re doing a behavioral therapy program, you’re reaching out to kids who are really struggling, kids that sometimes we have difficulty reaching,” he said.

“They’re coming to us, and our job is to put some of the pieces of the puzzle back together for them, so when they leave here, they leave with some solid skills, academically and behaviorally.”

That’s hard to achieve, he said, when three frigid buildings force children with a wide range of psychological needs into a space never designed for dozens of kids.

“Some of this therapeutic behavioral and academic program is for kids who really need individual, one-on-one work,” Weber said, “but we’re all jammed into the activity center right now because it’s the one room with heat. We have 35 to 40 kids every night who are really bunched up in here.

“We need to spend quality time making sure they get the behavioral therapies they need,” Weber said. “And we really need to have the space to address the needs each kid has.”

On Twitter: @DanGeringer


Northern Children's Services