Kevin Weber: Reflections on 40 Years @Northern!
On February 17, 2022, Kevin Weber, Northern's Director of Recreation and Volunteerism, celebrated 40 years at Northern. CEO Renata Cobbs-Fletcher sat down with Kevin to gather some of his reflections on this time at Northern.
Renata: What was Northern (then called Northern Home for Children) like when you started in 1982?
Kevin: I was only 25 years-old, and the kids were as old as 18! Northern was all residential at the time I started, so we had a lot of children who were coming in for a much longer period of time. We were taking care of kids for longer periods of time. They became very involved with us, depended on us, and sometimes we acted as parental figures.
Renata: How many kids lived here then?
Kevin: There were about 80 kids - all boys! You think of a big family you might have in your home, but here there was 80 kids. Most of the rooms we use now as administrative offices were dormitories. We had an emergency shelter for kids, there was a school on grounds in Clarency Hall that was affiliated with Roxborough High School for kids who lived here. Kids were not going to school, so we brought it to them. We also had independent living for those kids who could manage it (ages 10-18). We also had group therapy and recreation.
Wow...only 6.5 acres and 80 kids living here! While there were good folks who were here, there weren't always enough staff.
Renata: How did things change over the next decade?
By the end of the 1990's, the City began to wind down the boys' residential program due to financial challenges with making the program work financially for the providers like Northern. At that time, qualifications for residential staff were ramped up, and most of our residential staff no longer qualified to work in the program because they were without the educational background required. There was also a lot of liability risk for Northern in terms of having so many boys living on our campus at one time. As we transitioned away from residential in the early 2000s, Northern spent reflecting on our mission, and on how we could best serve the kids. Also, our finances were not strong. The buildings were in bad shape; we didn't have a lot of money, and some of the buildings sat empty for a long time
We decided to start a partial hospitalization day program for kids with behavioral health challenges. The program was designed to work with youth to prevent hospitalization for their challenges. We did this because we saw such a huge need. We started with boys, and then girls were added later as we were trying to figure out how the partial program would work. Kids in that program and other day programs come and go, so we don't get to keep them as long as we did.
Renata: What was the most difficult situation you've had to handle?
Kevin: The most difficult thing was when kids had to leave and had nowhere to go. They were out on their own. Sometimes they moved in with family members; some got apartments together; sometimes they enlisted in the military; some were homeless! I remember being downtown at 3rd and Spruce Streets and this guy said "Yo, Kev", and there was a kid who lived here who was clearly homeless.
Renata: Were the kids more challenging then?
Kevin: Kids were struggling with the same things that they do today. What do we do with these young kids today is very similar; they are overcoming obstacles that they are facing.
How do you define success and success stories?
I always look at success stories, but success stories with the residential boys were often as basic as many of them getting forever homes (through adoption). They got loving families!
Kids who didn’t grow up with the most solid family foundations found a way to create their own. They came to Northern, lived here, took in all the advice, therapy and counsel that was presented to them. Then after leaving the program, after some time they had families of their own and took on all the responsibilities of being the best parent that they could be. They were able to overcome all the struggles and obstacles of raising children while creating loving and caring family environments, passing along all the wisdom and determination that they’d gained to their children, At the same time, they felt the tremendous pride of watching their children live productive and successful lives themselves. Those are success stories that I feel proud to have possibly played a small helping role in. Just as other staff, therapists and administrators have done the same. Their success completes our hopes and dreams for them, and it’s so great to be a part of.
Renata: Do you work with youth differently today than you have in the past?
Kevin: I always say that I am using the same tactics then I do now. I still have close relationships with many kids from decades ago, and from recent years.
Renata: Since I started at Northern in 2015, I've heard a lot of stories about ghost sightings by former residents and staff? Do you believe in ghosts living at Northern?
Kevin: In 1986, a sixteen-year-old resident, Warren Myrich, who’d lived at Northern from 1982, passed away from a heart condition. He was a great kid – loving, fun, mischievous - and we were all heartbroken. Afterwards, my closest friend did an overnight in Merrick. He was sitting in the front office, and he saw an orb (ghost). He saw it go up the wall, and it stopped and hovered over him back down the wall and slid out the door. Since then, I've seen them in Merrick. But I always feel I am protected; they know who I am.
Renata: What do you love about Northern?
The kids make the difference. Children are coming here to us with a need or an issue. Staff here are special; everyone here is connected to each other and to the young people and families we serve.
The staff, the people – I thoroughly enjoy them. We are here to work with the children; to help the children. To me, there have always been ups and downs. Time has gone by "like this" because you want to give the dedication. Because I am the one who gets to see things full circle – what we say today stays with that kid their whole life. It has meaning; it's there forever. Every alumnus and kid we are serving today have memories. They remember things that change them.
That's a reason to be here. I've seen it make a difference. Recently, a young man called me who I hadn't seen or spoken to in 30 years. He was in distress, and he reached out to me for help and support. That's a special as you can get.
Renata: It’s no surprise that your nickname here at Northern is Superman! We are grateful for all that you have done, and all that you continue to do on behalf of so many children, youth and families.