By Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT, President of Innerchange

I first met New Haven’s primary founder, Mark McGregor, and his partner, Craig LaMont, in 1994 at a treatment center called Oasis Academy in Provo, Utah.

Mark had recently completed his hours to qualify as a Supervisor of new Marriage and Family Therapists, had quit his job as a therapist at a local practice, and had taken the job as Oasis’ Clinical Director so that he could learn the ropes of how to run a residential treatment center. Craig had taken a job as a therapist and was a graduate student who was training with Mark.

Our jobs at Oasis Academy were ridiculously difficult, not because the work was too hard, but because we had too few resources to properly care for the students. I quit my job at Oasis Academy after I couldn’t take the phone calls from parents anymore. It got so bad that I actually began recommending to certain parents that they pull their kids out of the facility.

Before I left, Mark told me to look him up in a year, as they were going to start a therapeutic “haven” for girls. He promised that it would be radically different from Oasis Academy.

Welcome to New Haven

Mark and his partners decided to name their new venture “New Haven”. This proved to be the perfect descriptive encapsulation of our philosophy of treatment, our company culture, and our future reputation.

In February 1996 I drove through a blizzard to set foot for the first time in a spacious wood-and-brick farm house on nine acres of land in Spanish Fork. I had arrived for orientation and to meet New Haven’s first employees.

I met Mark’s wife, Kathy, who would be our CFO and Business Director. I met Craig’s wife, Diane, who would be our Nursing Director. Kit, one of my best friends from Oasis Academy, was a licensed Teacher. She would be our Education Director. Karl Jensen was also there, our Recreation Director. I still regard Karl as the best therapist I have ever met, and count the years I spent with him as the best therapeutic training I’ve ever received.

We were oriented to Mark’s Philosophy of Change (now known as New Haven’s Company Values) – five aspects he wanted each student to address while they were in treatment. These are Love, Internal Locus of Control, Self-Esteem, Family, and Positive Values. (Years later I suggested adding our sixth Value, Spirituality, and changed Self-Esteem to Selflessness.) At that time, these values were revolutionary for female-specific treatment. First of all, no one was doing treatment for girls very well; others were just doing treatment designed for boys, but with girls. Mark and Craig suggested adapting treatment to girls’ specific needs. Second, no one was focusing on values, family systems theory, self-esteem, love, and an internal locus of control as a package. Mostly, other programs simply paid lip-service to all of those things.

In addition to the Philosophy, Mark oriented us to the Levels he had named, and to the privileges and definitions for each Level that he, Craig, Diane, Kathy, Karl, Kit, and others had created. Mark felt strongly that the Level names ought to showcase the students’ movement from external motivation to internal motivation.

In order to more fully flesh out Mark’s Philosophy and Levels, in 1997 I presented Mark with the idea for what would become our Values Program, scratched out in pen on three sheets of a yellow legal pad. Mark saw the potential in what I was feebly describing and approved time and money (in a season of New Haven’s history when we didn’t have time or money) to get the prototype off the ground. It took one year and heavily involved half of New Haven’s staff. Those three yellow pages would transform into a Student Manual, Parent Manual, New Haven’s unique Values Levels Program, Values Awards Ceremony, Value Beads, Home Haven Program, would introduce the Values Coach mentoring program, would dramatically affect the flow and structure of how our therapists do therapy, and would give life to Mark’s Levels System and privileges.

Establishing a Sterling Reputation

As the years progressed we became known as the highest-quality treatment center for girls available. Our reputation seemed to take off like wildfire.

Early on, New Haven’s Founders decided it was important for them to comply with the highest standards in behavioral healthcare available. We settled on a goal of achieving accreditation with the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO – now know as the Joint Commission). We achieved Joint Commission Accreditation in August 1996, something we have maintained until the present day.

We started doing Family Weekends almost as soon as we opened. We had only one building, so we did recreation therapy activities in the garage in the wintertime, and we traveled eight miles into Springville to use a ROPES Course on some property that Karl was renting. We were ecstatic when we finally had enough money to construct the large ROPES Course that now stands on the South Campus (updated and added upon in 2007). I remember helping Karl build the Ladder activity, sitting on the grassy burm at the back of the Sacagawea House in the fierce wind, bolting the redwood beams to the cables a few hours before our Family Weekend was to start. We set the Determination Posts in concrete that same month, built the Teeter-Totter, and arranged the forms for the Zig-Zag. Building the Lifeline was the most fun, because none of us could imagine what Karl was doing, and he wouldn’t tell us – he simply directed us to string miles of twine through the orchards in back. The Lifeline has become my favorite event and is one of the most impactful activities a family can participate in during Family Weekend.

New Haven’s Founders always believed that the way they treated the girls and the employees was more important than making money. For example, they made sure that the students who were not going to receive much for Christmas were taken care of for the holidays. They also threw a party for the employees, complete with gifts for everyone. I found out years later that their own families went without much in the way of material goods on that Christmas morning in 1996 because they had spent the money on their employees and the students. We have tried to maintain this founding spirit of sacrifice and focus on the needs of our students and employees as we continue to grow.

The Program Expands

In 1997 We grew from 11 students to 14 students and remodeled the original House. Everyone was worried we were getting “too big”! When we built the Roosevelt House and added six more acres and 16 more students in 2000, some were even more worried that New Haven would lose its “family” feeling. We made a crucial decision to separate each Houses’ residential staff, and operate each House independently from the others. This proved to be an excellent clinical model which maintains the tight-knit feeling at each House, both among staff and students, no matter our size.

We built a new Schoolhouse and turned the schoolroom above the garage of the original House into a Recreation Therapy office. Kit passed away before she could enjoy her new facility. She died close to her 30th birthday, suddenly, in the cool of the night of May 2000. I spoke at her funeral and the students sung a song they had written. Kit’s body rests, fittingly, on a beautiful bluff on the mountainside in Provo, overlooking an elementary school where visitors hear the laughter of children on the playgrounds below.

We named New Haven’s Schoolhouse after Kit, the building that sits on the South Campus. I dug the hole for the flagpole at the front of the Schoolhouse, cleared the ground for the cement pad that surrounds it, and shoveled the concrete in while my friends Scott Davis (Marketing Director) and Karl helped set the pole, then Karl and I shielded Scott as best we could from a light rain that began to fall while Scott smoothed the concrete. We all put the marker with her name on it in the wet concrete together. It was a physical way to relieve our grief.

By 2001 we still had a long waiting list. To provide more families with the help they desperately needed, we wanted to expand but were not allowed to add buildings to our property. So, we purchased a beautiful white home with expansive picture windows on ten acres in Saratoga Springs, thirty miles from our original campus. This acquisition allowed us to serve 18 more families, for a total of 50 students.

To address the training challenges that come with growth, we created an encompassing and aggressive training program – the “Living Manual”, as we called it. The trainings developed then are still in use today, with New Haven’s employees having added to (and much improved) the trainings over the years. I am unaware of any other program that so extensively trains its Residential Staff, and gives them so much trust and responsibility to help further the therapeutic needs of its clients.

Leadership Changes

In 2001 Laurie Laird was hired in Kit’s place as New Haven’s Education Director. I imagine it must have been very difficult for Laurie to attempt to fill the shoes of someone who had passed away – someone who was idealized. In spite of that, she immediately set to work improving the school: She sewed curtains for the new Schoolhouse windows; she changed the school curriculum from packet-work into a classroom-style experience – the single most impactful thing she could have done. In 2002, when we discovered that we weren’t effective with students with learning disabilities, she dramatically changed our entire program to address those students’ needs. We are now known as an excellent place for kids with learning disabilities.

Mark contracted colon cancer, which devastated him, his family, and his New Haven family. John Stewart was hired in Mark’s place as the Clinical Director in 2001. John had been the director of a county drug and alcohol treatment program for ten years. John brought with him an expertise in chemical dependency and an inclusive, direct management style that our company culture needed. John also introduced New Haven to what he calls the “Trauma Model”, a nurturing way to understand and resolve emotional wounds.

Also in 2001, Scott Davis left New Haven to start his own company. I was scared that Scott would leave – someone I considered a champion of New Haven’s reputation, and certainly largely responsible for its early success. Of course New Haven survived and thrived – and I learned a valuable lesson that New Haven’s success is not dependent upon any one person, rather is due to the combined strength of all of its talented employees.

Scott had also been the leader of our team, so with his absence the company was reorganized and I was promoted to Executive Director.

In September 2003 our census dropped dramatically. It was a very trying time for us. I had to lay off four people and take a hard look at the budget. It took that event for me to see the writing on the wall – that we were all very good at treating girls and families, but our talents did not include business management! I began developing a mentor relationship with Val Christensen, who assumed the role of Board Member in early 2004. His wealth of experience as a hospital administrator and entrepreneur over-qualified him to instruct and train me in the ways of business.

2005 to Present

Shockingly, Mark McGregor died on July 24, 2005, leaving Kathy to care for their four young children alone. We buried Mark’s body on the edge of a gorgeous hillside, overlooking the entire valley, only a few hundred yards from Kit’s gravesite. I still ask myself, “What would Mark think about this?” when I make important changes to New Haven’s program.

Val Christensen and CIC Partners formed a holding company and purchased New Haven on February 2, 2006, and Val took the helm as President and CEO. John, Laurie, and I each were given ownership in the new company, and I reported directly to Val in my continuing capacity as the Executive Director. (Kathy resigned as CEO, but remains a partner with us.)

In March 2006 New Haven began construction on another house at its South Campus on additional land we had acquired, which bordered the Roosevelt House. It opened its doors to students in November 2006, and as the capstone to our Family Weekend that month we dedicated it as the Mother Teresa House.

We renamed the three other houses as follows: the original House (West) we now call Sacagawea; the first expansion (East) we call Eleanor Roosevelt; and the North House we call Rosa Parks.

In 2007 we finished remodeling the South Campus Schoolhouse, adding a large art room and two more classrooms. We added more bathrooms, remodeled a few of the existing classrooms, and opened everything up so that the whole building feels brighter and more spacious. We also finished remodeling space for a gym and improving the school at the Parks House.

In April of 2008 Val became the Chairman of the Board and hired David Michel as CEO. David took the company through an extensive re-branding process of the holding company, which is now proudly known as InnerChange.

David has been a leader in values-based business for over 15 years. He created Jay Jay the Jet Plane to provide positive, non-violent role models for preschoolers during a time when the most popular shows for preschoolers modeled very different, and often violent, behaviors. When Jay Jay no longer needed his full-time attention, he started WinningHabits, the premier provider of technology-based wellness programs for large employers and health plans. WinningHabits was acquired by Matria Healthcare in October 2005. David embodies the values upon which New Haven built its reputation, and he has a passion for providing only the highest quality healthcare to families.

Conclusion

It’s amazing that we have blossomed from what started as ten bright-eyed, idealistic people in the loft of a farmhouse on a cold February night, into 185 amazing professionals who have served over 600 families since 1996. We are still committed to the same vision that started it all – girls need a safe haven where they can heal from the past, learn to thrive in the present, and then return to their families and build hopeful futures together.

Ultimately, the greatest influence on the creation of New Haven’s program has been the sensitivity to parents and students. We continually remind ourselves of what is most important by asking this question: “If this were for my daughter, how would I want it to be?”

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