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Serving Youth & Families Since 1880
Serving Youth & Families Since 1880

Q&A with Peggy Harris

Q&A with Peggy Harris

heinz_qnaBy Carmen J. Lee Endowments Communications Officer
Continuing a legacy that stretches back more than 130 years, Three Rivers Youth provides care and support to youth from troubled backgrounds. President and CEO Peggy Harris describes how the organization’s work has expanded to include more educational support as well as increased efforts to preserve and reunite families, all with the goal of putting young people in its programs on the path to brighter futures.

Q: What was your organization’s biggest triumph over the past year?
A: Three Rivers Youth has been proudest of some of its most recent work in helping youth graduate from high school. We believe that focus on education is the most transformative thing we can do to change life outcomes for youth immersed in poverty and impaired by abuse and neglect. As part of a three-year collaborative, we graduated yet another group of youth who did not become part of the statistics of a nationwide trend of declining graduation rates. Every child who graduates represents a special triumph over adversity that can change their lives and we are proud to be part of their triumph.

Q: What has been the biggest trial?
A: There are sweeping changes in the child welfare system – both nationally and locally. On a local level, our child welfare system – the county’s Office of Children, Youth and Families – has made major progress in reducing the number of kids in placement by achieving permanency for them with their families. As a historical and primary provider of shelter and congregate care services, we have been affected perhaps the greatest in shifting from longer to shorter stays in congregate care. While we have seen strategic shifts to reduce congregate care, we understand that there will always be some youth who are not able to live at home. These youth will require more innovative approaches to ensure successful outcomes. Three Rivers Youth has been a leader in child welfare for more than 133 years and is very much up to the task of being part of the leadership to respond to best practice service options for all youth served in the foster care system.

Q: What issue or event has had the most impact – positive or negative – on your organization in the past year and how have you responded?
A: I would say the sea change around the child welfare shift. What we’ve done is owned it and decided that we want to be part of innovative approaches to serving our children and families. We believe that in many cases more cost-effective solutions do exist in communities and in their own families. Now, the caveat would be where it compromises the child’s safety, and that’s not something we want to do. At the end of the day, we don’t save money by offering fragmented short term solutions. On some level, it’s “you pay you now, or you pay me later” kind of situation. I think all of us ought to be committed to long-term solutions for the family. As this change has happened, it has caused us to rethink the level of service that we are able to provide, or can economically provide, and so we have responded is in a number of ways. We have reduced the service capacity to serve children in our homes, which means that we had 46 beds for kids who reside in group home care, and now we are at 36 beds for group home care. We have taken a look at our continuum and decided that we want to enhance the services that we offer this year. We plan to add two new service lines: foster care, which is a preferred service over a group home placement, and we’re trying to secure a license to provide mental health services.

Q: What new initiatives have been started?
A: The foster care and mental health services that I mentioned. We’re also launching a capital campaign to build a more sustainable organization by investing in more innovative approaches to service delivery, developing more evidence-based models, growing our infrastructure, improving buildings, upgrading our client transportation system and eliminating long term debt. We also need to enhance our technology – we never get done buying new computers or upgrading software. Finally, we want to do more investment in our own staff. We have for some time run what we called a training academy and included other providers. But we really want to do more to professionalize the way that we operate that, so it is almost runs like a small academy/university and is a credit program. The curriculum would be designed around achieving specific client outcomes. For example, as we shift to being more family focused and inclusive, we need to do a lot of work to have our staff shift to that philosophy. So we are designing a curriculum to achieve that.

Q: As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it next year?
A: One of the things I have prided myself on is that we always lead with a plan. Like many organizations, we must work toward a longer-term plan. We develop annual strategies that take a micro look at what is in front of us right now, what is going to happen in the next 12 months and what are our options going to be farther in the future. So the 2014 strategy is a little more aggressive than in some past years. We have added many different enhancements to programs and services, and we want to increase our outcomes in each area. So, by the end of next year, we will have launched foster care and mental health services, redesigned our training academy and made progress in addressing some of our capital goals.

Q: So if your organization were a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A: Driven and nurturing. We do look at the bottom line, and we don’t give up. But we’re also nurturers. We attract people who care about others.

Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A: Size. We have an operating budget of more than $4 million annually, and people often think we’re much smaller because 90 percent of nonprofit organizations have budgets under $1 million. Q: Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region? A: Our Three Rivers Youth Nellie Leadership Awards is our annual themed gala that highlights the plight of children worldwide. I believe this has served both to educate the community and to call them to action to support our efforts. It’s also a celebration of community leaders whose work has had an impact on the welfare of youth and families. Every year, we use it as an opportunity to spotlight a child whose life has been changed for the better because of our organization. The event is named after the first client back in the 1800s, a 4-year-old orphan named Nellie Grant.

Q: Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A: A young woman from Philadelphia had been with us for four years. She was diminutive in stature and had lived on the streets of Philadelphia before she came to us. She was going through sexuality exploration and expressed herself through her clothing and behavior. When other girls were more comfortable in party dresses, she felt just as pretty in a shirt and tie. We allowed her to be herself and just cared for her. After graduating from high school, she decided to go into the Army, and when she came back for our leadership awards event, she was in full military regalia. We had asked her to speak, and during her presentation, she described being raped by men and women while she was on the streets in Philadelphia. She told the audience when she came to us it was like coming home. People ask her today where she’s from, and she said she tells them that she lived in a residential facility in Pittsburgh. But she adds, “That place was my home.” While pursuing a military career, now, she will continue her formal education in psychology or law.