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A look inside Mohican Young Star Academy

  • 8 min to read

Editor's note: The name "Danny" has been changed and no photographs accompanying this article depict the faces of residents of the center. This is to protect the privacy of juveniles in the program.

PERRYSVILLE - Danny came to Mohican Young Star Academy last fall with cigarette burns all over his arms.

The teen had experienced severe abuse and neglect from his “caretakers” at home, and the trauma had left him anxious and angry.

A danger to himself and to others, Danny’s instinct was to fight everyone around him. He couldn’t even imagine the possibility of a positive future.

But a few months into the residential treatment program at Mohican, something clicked for Danny.

He began to listen and respond to academy staff and peers. He became willing to talk about his trauma and developed coping skills to move forward.

Working through the five phases of the program, he set goals for himself and celebrated milestones as he achieved them.

Now, as he prepares to graduate from the academy, Danny exhibits a confidence he never had before. He says he wants to be an actor and a lawyer.

“For a child who came to us with no hopes for the future at all, that’s a powerful statement,” said Olga Starr, executive director and owner of the facility.

Arriving at Mohican

Talk to other recent program graduates or soon-to-be graduates at Mohican Young Star Academy, and you’ll hear similar stories.

Nearly all of the approximately 60 young men in the program are court-ordered to be there. They come from all over Ohio and range in age from about 13 to 18.

Often coming from larger cities where they may have been involved in gang or drug activity, the teens-- or “peers” as the program staff refer to them-- generally experience a bit of a shock on the way to campus.

They realize they are surrounded by miles of woods and rural areas, with no place to run and no street life to engage in, Starr said.

Some of the peers find themselves at Mohican after being convicted of violent crimes. Some are juvenile sex offenders. Others were declared “unruly” after getting in constant trouble at school or in their foster homes.

Sometimes the program is required as part of probation or in exchange for charges being dropped. Other times, a judge who does not want to sent a juvenile home after 60 or 90 days in detention will send him to Mohican. The center has taken youth from 58 counties.

Regardless of how they get to Mohican, most new arrivals have no desire to be there.

It usually takes staff weeks or even months of building relationships, establishing a strict and predictable structure and rewarding positive behavior to get a program participant to truly buy in to the program.

But once they do buy in, operations director Tanya Fellure said, the program is transformational.

One recent graduate of the program recalls it took him a few months of “faking it” in the program and four times being demoted to a lower level before he made the commitment to change.

“I wanted to be a better person, I wanted to make socially acceptable decisions and be successful,” he said. “So I started working with my group leader and my group and they started working with me, and from there everything started to unfold and things got better.”

Now, that young man is running his own small business with his grandmother and preparing to graduate high school. He’s become a vocal supporter of the program, even posting positive comments about his experience on social media.

The Mohican culture

Upon arrival at Mohican, young men are placed into groups of about eight peers, based on their maturity level and mental health abilities. Exercises and rituals to encourage bonding begin almost immediately.

Each group has its own team name, like The Aztecs or The Dragons, along with its own corresponding symbol and team colors. Group members share dorm rooms and common areas, have formal group sessions together and compete together in recreational sports against other groups.

Over a period of several months, peers work through a five-phase program that begins with orientation and ends with graduation. They must meet individualized treatment goals in order to graduate.

On weekdays, peers undergo individual and group therapy and take online classes using a program called Odysseyware, earning credits toward a Loudonville High School diploma. Each peer works at his own pace but has the option of getting individual help from a tutor.

Clinical director Jennifer Moore said the collaborative approach to treatment at Mohican is what yields results and sets the center apart from other programs.

“If they are being treated in the community, they are being seen by an outpatient counselor maybe once a week. The counselor isn't necessarily connected to the school or isn't connected to the parents or isn't connected to anybody else in their lives,” Moore said.

At Mohican, Moore said, counselors are constantly talking with residential staff and educators to see how youth are doing in school, how they interact with others and how they are spending their free time.

Each staff and group member who interacts with a peer is aware of that peer’s treatment goals, so informal therapy takes place 24/7.

Peers are expected to show respect to staff and visitors on campus and behave politely in public when they earn privileges to travel off campus. They have daily chores assigned to them, and they can take on extra tasks to earn money for recreation funds.

Recreation is a big deal at Mohican. Field trips and on-campus recreational activities are designed not only to provide positive outlets for peers but also to incentivize good behavior.

If a peer behaves badly, he loses his right to participate in activities like sledding, hiking or athletics.

The facility boasts a gym with a basketball court, a football field and an obstacle course for Ninja Warrior-style competitions.

On Saturdays, the youth who have earned the privilege enjoy popcorn and candy while watching a movie on a big screen in an on-campus theater.

On Sundays, the boys attend chapel services, and some of them play in a praise team. Chapel is voluntary, and peers may take a morals and ethics class instead-- but few choose that option.

Peers in higher phases of the program often get to go off-campus to church, something they look forward to each week.

Youth can also join step team, art club, finance club, or newspaper club. They also take independent living classes and learn life skills like cooking and balancing a budget.

Celebrating success

The culture at Mohican is built around relationships and rituals. Mohican staff truly emphasize holidays and celebrate milestones.

For Thanksgiving, each group gets its own turkey at its own table and kitchen staff serve up food family-style rather than cafeteria style.

Each time a peer is promoted from one level of the program to the next, his entire group gathers and cheers as he rings a bell.

Graduations from the program are celebrated with even more fanfare. Graduates and their group leaders each give speeches about the graduate’s treatment journey, and peers watch a video about the graduate. The ceremony is followed by a special dinner and cake. Graduates’ pictures are displayed on bulletin boards in the dorms.

Each of these graduation rituals inspires newer peers to imagine themselves in the position of the graduate and to work toward completion of the program.

Higher-phase peers are also expected to lead and guide peers in lower phases. This form of positive peer pressure seems to help both the newer program participants and the older leaders.

One soon-to-be graduate said he came into the program thinking only about what he needed to do to get out.

As he prepares to graduate, he’s focusing his energy less on his own frustrations and more on his ability to be a leader for peers that are newer to the program. He finds it rewarding to help peers get through challenging times, and he earns privileges each time he steps up to lead.

The more he demonstrates responsibility, the more freedom he has to do what he wants. Staff allow him to stay up late, to skip group sessions for some alone time or to leave the facility on weekend passes to visit his family.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been able to change my whole attitude and work through whatever I needed to work through as a person, and I’ve made myself better,” he said. “I’d rather be here than sitting in (a juvenile detention center) or in county. I can work to better myself as a person and I don’t have to worry about my next court date.”

Justin Teeters, assistant treatment director at Mohican, said his goal is to make that kind of a difference in the young men he works with, one life at a time.

“It's rewarding when the boys called back a year later saying, ‘I'm married’ or ‘I've got a job’ or ‘I get to start college next week,’” Teeters said. “That’s the most rewarding thing when the boys get to call back and brag about all their successes. We get those calls on a regular basis.”

A program in transition

Of course, things don’t always go right at Mohican Young Star Academy.

The program doesn’t work for everyone. If a peer is a constant danger to himself or to others, the Mohican will send a disruption notice informing the teen’s home county the program can no longer treat him.

And the facility is not without its share of troubling incidents, though Starr believes Mohican is headed in a better direction since she took the helm in 2017.

Mohican Young Star Academy, formerly known as Mohican Youth Academy or Tri-State Youth Authority, moved from a smaller facility in Chesterville to its current location in 2013. Located at 1012 ODNR, Mohican 51, Perrysville, the campus is the former home of Mohican Juvenile Correctional Facility, a state juvenile detention center that closed in 2010 as a result of budget cuts.

Upon moving in, the academy took down much of the fence that previously walled off the center, remodeled existing buildings and built a new chapel and a movie theater.

From the start, Mohican was designed to be a treatment program rather than a detention facility. But the confrontational style its staff had developed in response to conflict had led to inappropriate incidents that put the center in a negative light, according to Starr.

A September 2017 letter from The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to the academy lists 19 citations for administrative code violations and threatens to revoke the center’s license.

Violations included things like physical abuse and improper restraint of children.

“The reputation of the academy had gone to shreds and it was hurting the director immensely, so he told me, ‘Hey, if you want to take it off my hands, it’s yours,’” said Starr, who was the banker financing the operation as well as a board member for the center at the time.

The previous director retired, and Starr replaced him and began making changes.

“When I came on board, I made relationship-building the focus of treatment,” Starr said. “We started focusing our training with the emphasis on trauma-informed care, which stems from the principle question of ‘What’s happened to you?’ not ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

Starr also replaced a majority of the center’s leadership team and terminated any staff members who failed to comply with the center’s new philosophy.

The changes seem to be ongoing, as records from The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services show four staff members have been terminated since last fall and another staffer is under investigation.

But overall, Starr believes the changes are working.

“When I first started interviewing boys in different facilities to see if they were going to be a good fit for our program, they were saying, ‘Oh, you're from Mohican? The place where they slam kids around?’” Starr said.

“Now if I go out to interview somebody, they say things like, ‘Oh, you guys are the place with the best recreation,’ or ‘You guys have been to the softball field and the basketball court.”

In September 2018, The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services increased Mohican’s licensure from a maximum of 40 youth to a capacity of 87. As of mid-April, the center had 58 peers in the program.

The center now has close to 90 employees and is hiring aggressively as it continues to grow. Starr is expanding outreach efforts in hopes of attracting high quality staff who care about children and are committed to trauma-informed care.

An open door

Starr encourages neighbors and members of the community as well as potential staff members to come see Mohican first-hand during one of the facility’s open houses. Few people take her up on the offer.

“We want for them to know about the culture we built and the hard work we do on the clinical side and the residential side,” Starr said. “But the nature of this industry is such that people are afraid of the unknown. Neighbors may feel unsafe knowing we have delinquent youth in this facility that’s not a lockdown facility.”

“We want the community to know how awesome the change is that takes place when peers are here,” Starr said.

Starr also wants people to see the peers out doing community work projects like cleaning river banks, maintaining church lawns or clearing rubble from a neighbor’s home after a fire.

“Those are the kinds of things that we're hoping people will know us for,” she said. “Not, oh, this was a former detention facility or a juvenile prison or anything like that.”

For more information about Mohican Young Star Academy, visit www.mohicanysa.com.