By Ray Balogh
PIERCETON — Lifeline, a faith-based organization that ministers to youth and families involved in the legal system, has done a lot of good — measured in thousands of changed lives — at its 94-acre Pierceton campus just north of US 30.
Lifeline started in 1968 and operated farm homes for troubled boys and girls in Warsaw, Etna Green, Fort Wayne and Columbia City. All those locations consolidated in 2008 on the six-building campus now known as Pierceton Woods Academy.
The campus can house 48 youths in individual dorm-style rooms and also maintains an administration and classroom building, gymnasium and a wood shop that also serves as the center for the organization’s agriculture programs.
About two-thirds of the campus consists of trail-infused wooded acreage, which provides a serene and contemplative atmosphere and offers team-building activities on high and low rope courses.
The academy, employing 75 staffers, is busy 24/7.
“We’re always close to capacity,” said Joe Gough, vice president of residential services. “We have served more than a thousand kids from all over the state.”
Pierceton Woods Academy offers several programs for youth aged 10 to 21 years:
• Sexual Health and Relapse Prevention program for male youth with sexually harmful behaviors.
• A computer based self-paced year-round alternative school allowing residents to recover lost credits and earn a high school diploma or GED.
• Home-based services, such as family-centered casework and therapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, visitation facilitation and parent education.
• Independent living program to prepare older youth for a successful transition to adulthood. The first part of the two-phase program is held at the Pierceton campus; the program is completed in Fort Wayne.
One of the therapeutic and educational mainstays is the 60-foot-by-60-foot campus garden, tended by the kids, either for class credit or as an extracurricular activity.
Pierceton Woods Academy also offers vocational training in woodworking, commercial level computer aided design, small engine repair and automobile maintenance.
Matt Trier, vocational technician, oversees the garden, which contains 22 raised beds and yields tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, bell and serrano chili peppers, pumpkins, cantaloupes, watermelon, corn, fennel and cilantro.
“We’re ready to till up another 20-foot-by-60-foot plot next to the existing garden and cover it for the winter,” said Trier, in his second year of supervising the career pathway program in agriculture.
The garden is popular with the kids and serves the organization’s primary purpose. “They want to be out here because they are up and moving,” said Trier, who organizes grow racks in the wood shop during the winter. “The guys will get to see the growing process, from seed to harvest to food preparation to their plate in the cafeteria, basically ‘farm to table.’”
“We want the kids to have a skill and leave here knowing how to do something of value and be productive in the world,” Gough said.
“Beyond the practical matter, this is a way to change a life. They are on the wrong path, which if unchecked will lead to destruction. Their common denominator is they come from a bad family, with some level of trauma, abuse or neglect, and each kid picks up his own flavor of issues.”
Pierceton Woods Academy offers several paying jobs to the residents, who usually stay nine to 18 months.
“We treat each position like a real job,” said Gough. “The kids have to apply and interview, have to be on time for work and fill out time sheets and they can get fired for not performing their job.”
Residents can even participate in the academy’s custom wood product business, from customer consultation, design, creation and delivery of wood and composite products, such as indoor and outdoor furniture.
Future plans call for installing an 8,500-square-foot greenhouse and hydroponic garden by year’s end. Food, flowers and other plants will be sold at local farmer’s markets, “so we can engage with the community around us,” said Gough.
Pierceton Woods Academy will continue its apiary, with five hives that produced about 8 gallons of honey this season, and plans to tap some of the maple trees this winter to make syrup.
“Some kids may not experience change just from school and therapy,” said Gough, “so we’re trying to find some way to reach their hearts where they can create some tangible, good thing the world needs that didn’t exist before their effort.
“They get to see how all the flora and fauna interacts here, happening in an interdependent cycle that they are a part of.”
Pierceton Woods Academy is located at 27 Pequignot Drive, Pierceton.
To donate to the 501(c)(3) organization or for more information, call (574) 594-9200 or visit www.lifelineyouth.org.