Just east of the small community of Purdy, Va., down a series of winding back roads bordered by soybean fields and densely shadowed forests of oak and pine, the sturdy white columns of the nineteenth century home are just visible as you approach the gravel lane and the sign rising from the miles of dust and rural emptiness like a mirage: Welcome to Jackson-Feild Homes.
It’s a name unfamiliar to most outsiders, to anyone who didn’t grow up in the immediate vicinity. To most locals, it’s simply a mystery, a local legend first encountered in childhood during playground taunts or at the feet of their parents, after the normal threats of groundings and switches proved ineffective: “If you don’t straighten up, we’re going to have you put in Jackson-Feild Homes!”
Though subject to more than its fair share of rumor and speculation, the reality behind the wood framed house and the lush green fields surrounding it proves far more thought provoking than anything the fertile imaginations of local children could conjure up.
The homes history stretches back to 1855, to the height of the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the city of Norfolk, Va., eventually claiming the lives of 10 percent of its population. In response to the outbreak and the hundreds of children left orphaned in its wake, the Rev. William N. Jackson, a rector for the city’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, established the Jackson Orphan Asylum, working tirelessly throughout the epidemic before eventually succumbing to it himself. For the next 70 years the orphanage would provide a home for needy children throughout the region, its staff working to find adoptive parents as its board of managers defied the conventions of the day, refusing to let females under the age of thirteen or males under fifteen be “bound out,” or sold into indentured servitude, as was the custom of most orphanages of the period.
Though the orphanage was moved several times following its inception, even greater changes were ahead as the twentieth century unfolded.
In 1920, responding to an appeal from the Nationwide Campaign of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, Greensville County residents Mr. And Mrs. George Wythe Feild, who lost their daughter while she was still an infant, realized their long-time dream by opening the Episcopal Home for Girls. The home was originally located in a rectory house beside Grace Church in Purdy. At the end of 1920 there were six children in residence.
Two years later, the Feilds made the decision to donate their ancestral home in Greensville County, “Walnut Grove,” and 70 acres to the Episcopal Home. In 1925, due to economic interests and in order to pool resources, The Jackson Orphan Asylum was merged with the Episcopal Home for Girls. The new institution was renamed Jackson-Feild Episcopal Home in honor of the family and individual whose work and dedication brought about its formation. During this time it was decided that the institution would serve girls exclusively.
According to Tod Balsbaugh, Jackson-Feild Homes’ director of development, the nature of the home’s residents began to change in the early fifties, when many of the girls they treated were not orphans but instead suffered from various behavioral problems. “The home began to see there were different needs coming in to play, and made adjustments in the program to deal with that,” said Balsbaugh.
Over the following decades, Jackson-Feild continued to expand. Cottages, a dining hall and later a recreational hall, swimming pool and chapel were added. To meet the demands of problems caused by more widespread drug use, the institutions director and board of managers steered the homes focus in the direction of treatment programs. In 1975 the home took over operation of Eleventh House, a community transition program in Richmond that allows preparation for independent living and provides prenatal care, a service not offered on the main campus. In 1991, the Gwaltney School, a fully accredited educational facility, was added to the campus.
Today, Jackson-Feild Homes operates as a nonprofit community-based organization dedicated to educating, equipping and empowering at-risk teen girls. Surrounded by 135 acres stretching to the Nottoway River, the home boasts 75 staff members and offers a wide range of up-to-date services and programs for their residents, which range in age from 12-18. Most of the girls now come to the home through the recommendation of the State Department of Social Services and the juvenile court system. Independent Living, Maternity and Infants and Family Service programs are each recent additions to the home’s ever-expanding treatment options.
While the institution has continued to change with the times, Tricia Delano, Jackson-Feild Homes’ executive director, believes their basic approach remains simple. “We try to provide the girls with a safe harbor. Many of them have never had the opportunity to lead calm, structured lives. That’s why we’re here.”
According to Delano, few of the girls have been through the criminal justice system. Many come from foster care and mental health facilities and are typically one to one and a half years behind their peers in terms of education. “These kids have bounced around from one foster home to another,” said Delano. “For a lot of them, we’re the last hope.”
Balsbaugh said many of the girls are what he refers to as “social orphans,” due to financial problems, abandonment and physical and mental abuse; a large percentage come from homes ravaged by drugs and alcohol. “I was shocked at the level of the problem when I came on board,” said Balsbaugh, who previously spent 34 years with the Virginia Home of Boys and Girls.
After a child is recommended to the home, what Delano termed a “team of deciders” consisting of the home’s director of education, clinical director, social worker and director of programs, reviews the case and decides if the child meets the admission criteria. Once accepted into the home, an individual case program consisting of goals and treatment recommendations is established for the resident. Each child undergoes an assessment period where they meet the staff and the program is explained to them.
Delano said the individual programs are geared towards the different needs and abilities of each girl. The program works on the “phase system,” in which the residents move through different levels of goals, gaining responsibilities and privileges as they progress. During the program the residents are taught basic life skills, attend daily classes at the Gwaltney School, and work through a variety of intervention programs, including trauma focus, individual and group therapy and cognitive therapy.
One of the more modern programs, neurotherapy, uses electrodes to allow the residents to control video game-like devices with their brain waves. According to the home’s Director of Therapeutic Services, Debbie Mehl, the program processes bilateral eye movement to ascertain how the left and right side of the brain are working together. Mehl said the process “teaches the participants how to replace anxiety with healthy positive ways of thinking to lead to more relaxed, better decision making.”
The program also works with a psychiatrist to distribute medication when needed. Said Balsbaugh: “None of the services work in isolation. The beauty is all of them working together for maximum outcome.” Proof of the program’s positive results, he said, can be seen in the numerous girls who have successfully worked through the homes educational and therapeutic system and gone on to lead productive lives in the outside world.
One of those residents currently on the path to success, Angel, came to the home at age 16 after moving through several foster homes. According to Angel, at one of those homes she was the victim of sexual abuse. After speaking with a social worker she made the decision to come to Jackson-Feild Homes.
When she first began the program, Angel said she was withdrawn and angry, staying mostly to herself and paying little attention to staff members or fellow residents. “I suffered from low self esteem, really bad,” she remembered.
It’s a pattern Mehl has seen time and time again. “When a lot of girls get here they want to leave. They can be very self destructive; they have a lot of anger and repressed anxiety to deal with.”
Balsbaugh offered that while many of the girls have fled from their previous homes, Jackson-Fields’ remote, rural location offers little incentive for anyone thinking of running away. “They may make it to the road, but after that, there’s really nowhere to go.”
Now 18, Angel said that with the help of staff members and the homes treatment programs she’s been able to work through many of the issues that led her to Jackson-Feild. Through the homes partnership with Southside Community College, she was able to graduate from the Certified Nurses Aid Program and is currently living in Jackson-Fields’ Independent Living Home, where she’s saved up $2,000 working in the kitchen as part of the home’s mandatory savings program.
Though Angel’s plans for the future include working as a nurse and becoming a mother, she hasn’t yet settled on a definite plan. “Whatever God gives me, I’ll work with,” she said.
Another Jackson-Field Homes resident and graduate of the Certified Nurses Aid Program, Katrita, was involved in drugs and prostitution by the age of 12. Suffering from severe injuries following a suicide attempt, she was found naked on the streets of New York after being brutally raped by two men. Returning to her hometown in Central Virginia, Katrita eventually found her way to Jackson-Field Homes.
Delano said the task of overcoming Katrita’s anger and impulse control issues was painstakingly slow. “We had to make her feel loved and accepted. That was no small task. Our staff went above and beyond the call of duty day in and day out to help this young lady.” Eventually their efforts were rewarded. Katrita graduated from high school in June and returned to her community to live with family members. She is currently enrolled in college. “She’s been an inspiration to everyone,” said Balsbaugh.
According to both Balsbaugh and Delano, the home will continue to expand its services as new needs and challenges arise. Delano pointed to the success of the Gwaltney School, which to date has graduated 111 students, 20 of those in last years class, the largest in the school’s history. “We have proms and a full cap and gown ceremony. We try to make it as much like a normal high school experience as possible. For the last class we had State Senator Louise Lucas as the speaker. The kids loved it.”
After leaving the home, Delano said the former residents are surveyed at 90 days, six months and one-year intervals in order to gauge the outcomes of their treatment. Delano said studies have shown that after six months, 91 percent remain in school, while 75 percent of mothers are still placed with their child.
“Twenty five years ago these girls would have been in a mental health facility,” said Delano. “I think it’s finally starting to sink in that the cost of not providing early treatment is enormous. We end up paying for it later in the juvenile system, prison and unemployment.”
While the benefits of the program may be obvious, Balsbaugh said many people still have misconceptions about the home. “A lot of people believe we’re run by the government. That’s not true. We’re a non-profit, we rely on private donations and grants.” Balsbaugh said Jackson-Feild Homes recently applied for a $25,000 Robins Foundation Grant, which they hope to use to update their current program.
As for Jackson-Feild Homes’ educational programs, Balsbaugh commented, “We offer much the same thing that a first-class boarding school does. We offer a wonderful, caring environment; we give them opportunities.”
“We’re a pit stop on the road of life. Breaking through their defenses and hurt can be very painful,” said Balsbaugh, summing up Jackson-Feild Homes’ philosophy. “Lots of kids don’t believe in themselves, but if you believe in them they can start to realize their potential. We try to give kids a safe place where they can feel good about their day to day lives and be loved.”
(The names of all residents used in this story have been changed to ensure privacy.)