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The Miracle of a Normal Home
by J. Trevere MacFadyen,
from County Journal Magazine


In 1981, the magazine Country Journal sent a writer who created a marvelous story about Salem at that time, which is reproduce here with his permission:

For foster children who couldn’t make it elsewhere, The New England Salem Children’s Village provides a welcome family in the country.

‘Home,” he mocked gently.
‘Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’

‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

—Robert Frost
“The Death of the Hired Man”


The Miracle of a “Normal” Home
by J. Tevere MacFadyen
Reprinted from Country Journal, December 1981

The Miracle of a "Normal" Home From a distance the low grumbling of a school bus as it labors up Stinson Lake Road sounds indistinguishable from the log trucks that travel the same route several times daily. This is hardscrabble territory at the edge of the White Mountain National Forest some twenty miles west of Plymouth, New Hampshire. It is all chasms and side hills and bald patches where the loggers have come and gone. The tiny village of Stinson Lake itself is a species of town apparently native to northern New Hampshire, a local resort well past its prime, a string of dilapidated vacation cottages deployed around the perimeter of a big pond. It feels especially forlorn and hauntingly beautiful in winter, when the thick surrounding woods seem to extend their domain.

The dirty yellow bus finally heaves into view. It doesn’t even make an attempt at the snowy side road, but pauses, red lights flashing, to disgorge a dozen children down the driveway from their house. They clamber up the path toward a rambling white clapboard farmhouse that has suffered one too many additions since it was built. Part of a pig farm once, it later metamorphosed into a boys’ boarding school, and then lay vacant for years before assuming its new role. It is the house that these children return to after school each day, but it is not the same one occupied by their biological parents. It’s a foster home. In fact, in the strict technical parlance of social service bureaucracies, it isn’t a home at all but an institution, a facility duly registered and licensed by the State of New Hampshire Division of Welfare for the group placement of foster children. It ’s known officially as The New England Salem Children’s Village, but the youngsters who live there, enthusiastically greeted by the local cadre of rambunctious mixed-breed dogs, just call it home.

Forget your notions of Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town. Forget your soft-focus images of gently falling snow, crackling fires, enormous but somehow still welcoming brick buildings; of jocular, high-spirited horseplay among adorable urchins who, however time-toughened and street smart, are basically good kids. Forget your romantic myths. There is nothing romantic about a group foster-care institution. It’s the end of the line, the last stop, the safety net that catches children who’ve tumbled the whole way down a long and bumpy flight of stairs. Children consigned to these facilities arrive with files six inches thick. They do not have criminal records, but they are, as one Salem staff member put it, “kids who by definition couldn’t make it in a family. That’s why they’re in a group home. We’ve had one girl, thirteen years old, who’d been through twenty-nine foster homes before she got here. At the last one she broke her foster mother’s leg with an iron. These kids eat foster parents for breakfast. They just run right through them, burn them out, and when it becomes evident to the social worker that they’re not going to make it in a foster home, they go into an institution.

The children currently at New England Salem range in age from six to sixteen. They are for the most part the casualties of broken homes. Many have been beaten and abandoned, sexually abused, isolated, often attacked by their own parents, at best ignored. They’ve been passed from hand to hand for so long that they’ve surrendered any hope of having a real home. They’ve shuttled from parent to parent, from aunts and uncles to grandparents and foster families, from cops and caseworkers to schools and detention centers, finally landing in a group home. Ironically, even that refuge is only temporary. They’ll be expelled from most such facilities when funding for them evaporates on their reaching age eighteen. They’ve been given nothing but hell all their lives, and they have become expert at giving it back. They can be ornery and feisty, the proprietors of hair-trigger tempers. They come equipped with armor-plate protective shells, and they are capable of extraordinarily ugly performances. And yet they are, the staff of Salem Children’s Village unanimously insist, basically good young people.

The places where they too often wind up are something else again. “Let me give you an example,” says Thom Hartmann, founder and director of New England Salem. “We visited a state-run institution — I won’t say what state — and in one corner of the room there was a TV set with eight or ten kids in front of it, some of them rocking back and forth, obviously quite medicated. In the other corner was a coffee table with three nurses sitting around it, smoking, drinking coffee, and chatting. It was evident that those kids weren’t getting the attention and affection they needed.”

Even though it’s well known that foster children all too frequently follow the familiar trail from troubled childhood to adult crime, foster care has failed to generate a powerful political constituency. It is a condition most of us avoid considering, so it too has become a sort of foster child, cast off to fend for itself. It isn’t a glamorous funding priority like cancer research, and it can’t promise new jobs or economic boom times to the community that sponsors it: it’s just essential. Not surprisingly, understaffed and overburdened institutions tend to opt for rigid regimentation, seeking the easiest effective methods of managing their charges. The consequences are predictably catastrophic. Even with dedicated personnel, these institutions bear precious little resemblance to the idealized American vision of home. “Home is the place where a kid is supposed to be prepared for the real world,” Hartmann says, “but in the real world, who’s going to tie him down to his bed when he acts out and hit him up with Thorazine?”

Salem Children’s Village is a group foster-care facility, but about all it has in common with its counterparts are the children. Predicated on the unassailable belief that a child’s development is principally influenced by the quality of his surroundings, Salem (pronounced “solemn,” from the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace) sets out to replace the stratified, segregated atmosphere of an institution with something close to a model childhood.

Salem New England children, all from New Hampshire, come to the village by way of referrals from social workers or welfare department caseworkers. Most are veterans of prior stays in foster homes or institutions.

All are essentially homeless.

They join small family groups at home in a beautiful rural setting. There they find caring parents, abundant physical affection, lots of exercise, and plenty of good food. As active members of functioning households they accept responsibility and receive respect, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

“The family structure, that’s what really makes the most difference here,” allows houseparent John Roy. “It’s hard to believe it’s revolutionary, but I guess these days it is.”

At New England Salem three sets of houseparents look after a current total of twelve foster children. If they attend more faithfully to the children’s needs than most parents, it may be because they are backed by a platoon of six that includes a teacher and a child-care assistant, a cook, a carpenter, a secretary, as well as other support staff.

Meals are prepared in a central kitchen and delivered to the children’s houses, freeing the houseparents to spend more time with the youngsters. The Salem diet leans heavily on fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, cereals, and other so-called natural ingredients. It rigorously excludes meat, fish or fowl, refined sugars, artificial flavors and colors, and as nearly as possible food additives of any sort. Although the subject is still debated by researchers, Hartmann is adamant on the need for this dietary change. “I’m reluctant to attach any labels,” he says. “Usually we don’t even use the word vegetarian, because it puts too many people off, but I’m personally convinced that a combination of refined sugars and artificial additives will adversely affect the behavior of any kid, and that changing the kids’ diets is an important factor in the success Salem has had.”

The care of all foster children is subsidized by the state and counties, but these grants cover only about two-thirds of Salem’s operating costs. The rest trickles in for the most part in small contributions from individual donors.

Unlike most child-care facilities, where the children may be in residence but staff members commute to work from homes elsewhere, Salem sees itself as a true community. Houseparents and staff actually live there, and they all have a stake in the village’s future. That makes for a powerful esprit de corps among residents. (Indeed, considering the salaries Salem pays, this community aspect may be one of its big selling points. Director Hartmann commands only $112 a week, and the scale descends from there. Everyone receives free room and board. Interestingly, staffing has not been a problem at Salem. The village must regularly turn away applicants.)

All houseparents have had prior child-care experience, or have eared a related academic degree, but their qualifications are better demonstrated by their ample energy, heart, and soul, than by their academic credentials. The staff is attracted from diverse backgrounds by the chance to participate in the creation of something they believe in.

Many, including Hartmann, have given up professions for this opportunity. There is a persistent sense that the place is as much a retreat for the adults who work there as it is for the children they ostensibly serve.
“I think if you asked every staff person here, you’d get a similar response,” Hartmann suggests, “but I really feel lucky. This is the way I’ve always wanted to live, out in the woods surrounded by mountains, with a big garden, and horses, and people I care about around me.”

The environment of continuity engendered by a staff whose home and workplace are the same is a cornerstone of the Salem method.

“At most group homes the child-care staff works shifts, so every six or eight hours the children have new people watching them,” one staffer notes. “What we’ve seen here is that whenever our houseparents take a break, a night or weekend off, the kids experience the same sort of rejection they felt before they came here. They generally react pretty poorly, too, and things get a bit off the wall, so you can imagine what it must be like when those changes come three times a day.” Haunted by disjointed pasts, and by the fear that they’ll be tossed out in the cold again sooner or later, these kids develop behavior well tailored to survival but poorly suited to life in society as a whole. To counteract this trend, Salem emphasizes security, and children are assured that no matter what happens they’ll always have a home to return to.

The Salem prescription is hardly mystical. It includes armloads of common sense, a large helping of family life, and liberal doses of country living. The rural setting provides a physical and emotional buffer zone. It gives kids the chance to relax and to build self-confidence in new ways. Horseback riding, for instance, pays a role in Salem’s informal therapy. Children discover a lot about their own strength in developing the ability to control large animals. Gardening has admittedly been less successful, at least so far.

“All the staff wanted to put in a garden the first season,” a houseparent recalls, “and the kids looked at us like we were crazy. But when the harvest came in, they got a real kick out of it. This past year we found a lot more interest from them.”

The reasons for Salem’s emphasis on family are even simpler. “The kinds of parents that you and I will be is determined mostly by the kind of parents we had,” Thom Hartmann explains. “We learn our parental skills by observation. If you take kids who’ve grown up in abusive households, their parental model is extremely destructive. Then, if they’re sent off to an institution, they’ll have no model at all. So they invariably go out and get pregnant, and when they have children they continue to act just as their own parents did. The end result is multigenerational child abuse. We’re trying to break that pattern.”

What’s going on at Salem had its genesis halfway around the world in southern Germany, where in the late fifties a former prisoner of war resolved to repay the blessing of his survival by serving society. Disheartened by his initial attempts to reform adults, and struck by how many of them had been institutionalized as youths, Gottfried Müller turned instead to children, establishing foster homes rooted in startlingly simple principles of family and diet. He eventually consolidated these into the first Salem Children’s Village, in Bavaria. Soon two more German villages had sprung up, as well as outposts in Maryland, Michigan, Switzerland, Israel, and, most recently, Uganda.

That there is a franchise in Stinson Lake, New Hampshire, is due in large part to the determination of a slight, good-looking twenty-nine-year-old, a one-time purveyor of music-on-hold systems and marketing seminars. Thom Hartmann bailed out of a lucrative entrepreneurial career, quite literally to heed Salem’s call. In 1978 he was wrestling the grim malaise of success-without-satisfaction when a friend phoned from Germany; the friend had been so moved by what he’d seen at Salem that he offered to fly Hartmann over immediately. He went, he saw, and he was conquered.

He sold his business and began organizing on Salem’s behalf, taking responsibility for the promotion of a United States tour by a German Salem children’s orchestra. When Müller asked if he’d establish a village in New England, Hartmann jumped at the chance. “It never occurred to us not to,” he says. He and his wife, Louise, sold their home in Michigan and moved to Merrimack, New Hampshire, where they undertook a crash course in being foster parents: they took in a sibling group of three children while they laid the plans for Salem New England. They’ve since invested all their time and nearly all their savings in the project, without apparent regrets.

Hartmann’s devotion to the cause hovers just this side of the ecclesiastical. “I hesitate to say that this is what God wants me to do, because it sounds so pompous and presumptuous, but that’s my suspicion. By serving people, particularly bottom-of-the-barrel people, kids who have nowhere else to turn, I am myself enriched.” He pauses, weighing his own motivations. “It’s funny,” he goes on. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘What a sacrifice you’ve made!’ when in fact I view it from exactly the opposite perspective. I used to work for RCA Corporation. For me to go back to designing electric circuits for RCA would be a terrible sacrifice. In that sense I see the work I’m doing as a tremendously selfish thing. I love it. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.”

Like any revolutionary, Hartmann has ambitious plans. He’s risen fast through the Salem hierarchy and readily acknowledges that he’s transferred to his new quest the instincts he once applied to building businesses. He markets Salem. His fund-raising talents are abetted by a background in advertising, and Salem’s direct mail campaigns are a sophisticated blend of slick and folksy. They’ve generated sufficient support to keep the effort afloat, and Hartmann pours himself into them. He rarely rests. He rubs up against celebrities and isn’t above dropping an occasional name. He flies off to Washington for consultations, to Munich and Kampala; yet he somehow anchors a part of himself in the New Hampshire woods. Like any revolutionary, too, Hartmann is mindful of Mao’s dictum that revolution should rise from below. If his designs are grand (and they are: he admits to wanting Salem to be a model for all group foster-care institutions), his immediate concerns are local.

Salem New England now occupies temporary quarters in the old boy’s school and its allied buildings, which strictly limits its capacity, and puts a clamp on Hartmann’s plans for growth. The village is full, with every available space in active use. Without more houses, room for more houseparents, there is no room for the children waiting on a long list of eligible applicants. Hartmann has purchased 137 densely forested acres across the lake, a failed summer camp where construction has begun on a larger permanent village. At present, one new children’s house is nearly finished and should be ready for occupancy this winter. Hartmann envisions several children’s houses on the new site, a grandparents’ house, barns and corrals, orchards and gardens, a school, staff residence, and community center. His vision is so vivid that a listener can almost see those things there, too. A notice tacked to the bulletin board above Hartmann’s desk reads, “Expect a miracle.” He does.

Outside the office an eight-year-old girl in a blue fur-trimmed parka and school shoes trudges listlessly up and down a worn path between the woodpile and the house. One log at a time, she atones for some incident of errant behavior.

Discipline at Salem is imposed in a context of logical cause and effect rather than as condemnation. Staff members scrupulously excise the word punishment from their vocabularies. Instead they speak of natural consequences, of conscious decisions, of choices. “They can smoke if they want to,” one houseparent explains, “but then they’re choosing not to live here.” The young firewood carrier chose to throw a tantrum, and chose, too, to tote maple. Kids are free to fight one another if they like, but every punch implies a choice to do an hour’s chores. The system works. One smaller boy, perennially picked on by the others, finally hauled off and decked one of his tormentors. “That’s an hour,” he hollered happily. “I don’t care. I’ ll do it again.” He threw another punch. “Two hours. When do I start?”

“Our goal,” Hartmann says, “is to be a community, but not to live in a commune. I’ve seen kids brought up communally in all sorts of different situations, but I’ve never found a real alternative to the nuclear family.”

For the time being, though, space is in short supply and communal conditions prevail. At staff supper there always seem to be more faces to feed than plates and seats. A big square table shrinks as it’s encircled by hungry men and women. The hungriest are so-called Siberians, members of the crew at work on the new village across the lake. Conditions there are so primitive that Salem slang has altered its name from the prosaic New Site to a more descriptive New Siberia, and Siberians eat hearty, inhaling acres of cornbread, entire stuffed cabbages. The mood at the table is buoyant, enlivened by a common cause and a sense of deprivation shared on behalf of a mutual goal. It’s young in spirit, ragged, and infectious.

Perhaps because everyone there has chosen to be there, Salem exudes an infectious belief and optimism conspicuously absent from most institutions. It has a spirituality with strong Christian undertones. It would, however, be inaccurate and dangerously misleading to paint too rosy a picture of life at Salem. Potential residents are carefully screened beforehand, and most children seem to respond well to conditions there; still, in the last two years, two youngsters have been sent on to other institutions because Salem’ s staff was unable to cope with them. Violence, or the threat of it, is not unknown. It takes children a while to shed old habits and acquire new ones, and in the meantime the two worlds will come into occasional conflict. When that happens, as one houseparent notes, “things get a little hairy around here.” The staff love their work, but they look forward to days off, too.

In addition, the struggle for financial survival takes its toll. Fund raising swallows up a lot of Thom Hartmann’s time, and projects like the construction of a permanent village often haul up short of cash, stuttering along from donation to donation. Low salaries and self-reliant living cannot eliminate the continuing costs of managing an institution, and, all efforts at family living notwithstanding, an institution is what Salem New England is. Rent must be paid on the present buildings; mortgage payments must be made on the new land; capital funds must be solicited; and the regular care and feeding of a family of about thirty must be carried on. All that is no mean feat.

In the brown-shingled bungalow that’s home to John and Nancy Roy and their five foster children, after-school projects and homework haphazardly resolve themselves as supper is announced. A gentle, familiar chaos simmers in the small living room. Unfinished patchwork quilts are folded into sewing baskets; books are slammed shut; the woodbox gets restocked. Minor scuffles erupt and subside. “It’s pretty normal, actually,” Nancy observes, to which John adds, “This isn’t much different from any family household. We all live here. We get up and go to sleep and eat our meals together. Sometimes everything works smoothly and other times it doesn’t. We really are a family. The real miracle is how normal this place is.”

The children know they are different, though, and their emotional turmoil sometimes makes for trouble at school. Salem will soon have its own school, and one boy is already taking afternoons off to work with the construction crew. Flexibility is essential to maintaining a balance, as anyone who has walked a tree limb can attest. If the Salemites have stretched the definition of what constitutes a nuclear family, so be it. Their own self-image is fairly secure, although it’s challenged now and again by outsiders. In a supermarket a matronly bystander watched, mouth agape, as Mom and Dad (plainly in their early thirties) were badgered by their brood (aged seven to seventeen). You could almost see the tiny calculator whirring behind her wide eyes, adding and subtracting and disbelieving the answer.

But Thom Hartmann continues to believe. Having detailed a bleak financial forecast, conceding that despite having raised better than $100,000 in the last year he still had a long way to go before Salem even approached solvency, Hartmann went on to say, “I see problems as opportunities to create solutions. We ran out of money day before yesterday, but I’m not worried.” He squinted as the sun burst from behind a bank of clouds and bounced off the frozen surface of Stinson Lake. “This is my future. My future is Salem, and if I can make Salem work then I’ll have a secure future. I have no intention of seeing this place fail.” Then he raised one arm and pointed, like Babe Ruth designating the destination of his prospective home run in the right field bleachers, toward a spot where the new village is being erected. “I expect to be a grandfather there.”

(c) Copyright, 1981


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