PINE TOWNSHIP – Hieu Pham thanks George Junior Republic for putting him on the right track.
“The existence of this place saved my life,” he said.
The 49-year-old Bethlehem, Pa. Native spent his senior year at George Junior.
Pine Township Institution serves at-risk young men and offers education and housing as well as a variety of services and programs. George Junior also has programs in Indiana and Ohio.
As a teenager attending the Northampton County court system, he was offered a few options for an alternative school.
George Junior appealed to Pham, who was targeting the university. He has learned that George Junior’s youth cannot attend off-campus classes at Grove City High School until they have been at the facility for at least a few months.
An exception was made for Pham, who scored high on the George Junior entrance exam.
They recognized that he deserved the chance to prove himself, and is still grateful for the opportunity.
Pham, 49, now lives in New York with his wife and children and works as an investment banker.
A George Junior scholarship has helped him pay part of his tuition fees, and he gives back by providing scholarship funds to young George Junior pursuing higher education.
“There are more benefits to the local community,” Pham said of George Junior.
The staff work hard to make young people feel welcome and give them the tools they need to be successful, said Nathan Gressel, who has been the organization’s chief executive since early 2019.
And they always strive to update operations, expand services and programs, and educate the public on what they do.
There have been some personnel and supply issues in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but things are heading in the right direction, said John Horgan, vice president of operations.
Gressel and Horgan recently led a tour of the campus, which is located on 550 acres off Highway 58, just outside of the Grove City borough.
There are currently approximately 140 people served by George Junior. Educational services are provided by the Grove City Area School District
One of George Junior’s more recent programs is Long-Term Structured Adult Residence, which was boosted by a survey by the Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission.
The agency wondered if George Junior could help the men and women who have been sentenced by the court to get help with treatment, life skills, mental health and reintegration into society.
The program began in March and serves residents of nine counties. They are housed in a building on a different part of the campus than the youth chalets, and everything is going well, Gressel said.
Some community members may not be familiar with all of the programs available for George Junior youth, which are typically referred by the court system or child and youth services in a number of states.
There are driving lessons, a GED program, voice technology courses, and a fine arts program that has become known for producing metal sculptures for cities such as Grove City, Greenville, Sharon, and Pittsburgh.
Seven gymnasiums are available for recreation as well as an indoor ropes course which is part of the “adventure-based advice”.
There is an eight-week course that young people take in groups, empowering learning, problem solving and teamwork, said Jamie Stucchio, the program director.
“It’s all about trust,” Gressel said.
It levels the playing field for children and helps them learn to deal with their emotions.
“This fear of heights is an emotion,” Stucchio said as staff member Brady Russin prepared to demonstrate how part of the course works.
Outdoor groups like firefighters, sports teams and businesses have also used the ropes course as a team-building exercise, Stucchio said.
Other parts of the campus include the central kitchen building, picnic tables, basketball courts, soccer field, playgrounds, and a welcome center for families.
“We try to keep them as active as possible,” Gressel said.
The program center offers billiards, movies with fresh popcorn, video games, a campus store, hair salon and more.
They also try to make you feel like “at home”. Young people can personalize their rooms, and the monitors and children get together for meals.
Relationships between youth and staff are very important, Horgan said.
George Junior’s newest building is the Wellness Center, where medical services for physical and behavioral health are located.
The organization, which is a non-profit entity, raised funds for the center of $ 1.2 million, which can meet most health care needs.
George Junior is in the process of being designated as a “trauma-informed care” facility, Gressel said, noting the large “CARE” sign on campus that staff and students painted.
Direct care staff are trained in trauma awareness; most young people have an underlying trauma.
This certification will make George Junior the largest specialty institution in Pennsylvania, Gressel said.
The final stop on the tour was the Resource Building, which includes staff training and a presentation of the history of George Junior.
It was founded in 1909 by William Reuben George and at one point housed girls – an idea administrators reconsidered, Gressel said.
It started out as a farm that young people helped maintain, and it has since helped change their lives for many children, Gressel and Horgan said.
Pham graduated from Boston University and gave the keynote address to George Junior in 1994.
Her experience with George Junior has taught her that you can’t choose where you come from and that everyone has difficulties.
George Junior isn’t perfect, but he offers security and stability, which a lot of young people don’t have at home, he said.
“It’s run like a big family,” Pham said.