Wayward children find a home at the McKinley Children’s Center in San Dimas.
by Jennifer Kitzmann
photography by Rafael Anguiano
A small boy darts out of the door, slamming it behind him. He runs as fast as he can to get across the playground. His small brown eyes fill with tears and his face is flushed as he runs, screaming. As he reaches the crooked sidewalk, he trips on a shoelace and tumbles to the ground. “No, no!” he screams. An older boy catches up to him and pulls him up. “It’ll be okay,” the older boy says. “Come back inside.”
He and a couple other boys bring their young friend back in for another intervention session—something that may one day save his life.
“Many of these boys are angry and have a long ways to go in dealing with it,” says Kami Newman, assistant director of development at McKinley Children’s Center. “Some of their behavior is erratic and unpredictable, which makes it difficult to place them in a home. In intervention groups, these boys manage aggression, deal with separation and grief, and develop life skills. And the older children help the younger boys deal with their experiences.”
Founded 109 years ago, the McKinley Children’s Center continues to provide residential treatment for more than 65 children who live at the center, plus some 300 in foster care and more than 160 who attend Canyon View School. Canyon View is a private school, which is dedicated to providing educational services to students from kindergarten through 12th grade with learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, behavioral disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, Asperger Syndrome, and pervasive developmental delays. This program combines therapeutic, recreational and residential services in a single, cohesive program of healing and growth for children. The school’s treatment program addresses children with low self-esteem and encourages new levels of positive behavior.
Today, boys at the home live in cottages situated among 46 acres that include playing fields, a collective dining room, a counseling office, living quarters, meeting rooms, playgrounds, a swimming pool, basketball courts and a dentist’s office. The boys are surrounded by a safe and structured environment, with the support of faculty and staff to help them with the healing process.
Uriah Gregory, a 76-year-old retired minister, along with his wife Alice, founded the McKinley Home in 1900. They wanted to help orphaned, homeless and abused children at their 330-acre ranch in Artesia, California. After World War I, the McKinley Children’s Center relocated to Van Nuys, where it stayed for 38 years before moving to its current home in San Dimas in 1961. In 1992, the Center created McKinley’s Canyon View School. And in 1994, the Family Ties Foster Family Program was added.
McKinley Center Director of Development Rhonda Beltran, who was a foster parent in her early 20s, has worked at McKinley for 12 years and says that some of the volunteers that leave McKinley end up becoming foster parents. “Most of the parents we have at McKinley love children and really want to take care of them,” Betran says.
Many children who live at the Center have experienced a difficult childhood. Most need help in learning to live in a normal environment where they can learn to trust, take care of themselves, and get along with others. “Many of the children at McKinley are here because their parents can no longer care for them due to substance abuse and violence,” Newman says.
Dennis Bolton graduated from McKinley in 1958 after having lived in several different homes during his childhood.
“After being in and out of so many homes, I moved to McKinley at 15 after military school,” Bolton says. “We never thought of it as an institution for those without parents, but as our home, and the best school I had ever lived in.” At the time Bolton moved to McKinley, the home housed not only orphans, but also helped boys whose parents had rejected them or who did not have enough funds to support them.
“The children at McKinley today have had more psychological and physical abuse then what we had when I was at McKinley,” Bolton says. Many of the children Bolton lived with at McKinley were from broken homes and did not have enough funds to go to boarding school. “I had run away before, but when I was at McKinley I always felt accepted and wanted,” Bolton says. “I don’t think anyone ran away from McKinley, and if anyone did, they usually had someone to come back to talk to.”
Bolton says that many other schools that provide services similar to McKinley do not usually understand the importance of keeping families together, especially when two or three brothers arrive.
“The McKinley Home was very careful about keeping families together. If there were a lot of brothers who were in the home, McKinley was very careful about keeping them together,” Bolton says.
In the 1950s, the boys enjoyed a dining hall with a kitchen, where they spent time during the holidays or other functions. “I remember Mr. and Mrs. Swartz would always make sure every kid had a gift for Christmas,” Bolton says. “Even Jerry Lewis would send us clothes that he would only wear once. He was a big supporter of McKinley.”
At the time, McKinley had a small hospital with two wards, clinic rooms and a nurses’ living quarters. In the service building there were steam boilers, a laundry room, a garage and a workshop. “I really enjoyed working,” Bolton recalls. “I also talked to a lot of people in the neighborhood, like Joe, the maintenance man, and the guy from Helms Bakery. I even talked to the cooks. Everyone treated us just like anyone else. I was exposed to an enormous amount of people from all different backgrounds. That really helped me relate to people in everyday situations.”
After Bolton graduated from McKinley, he worked in the recreational department at the center, and later started his own business. “I was always impressed with what McKinley had to offer. It helped me believe I could do anything I wanted in life.”
Canyon View School teacher Albert Jackson III has been researching programs to help enrich the educational process for students at McKinley. Jackson launched a model of the innovative language and literacy program Fast-Forward, created by Scientific Learning, to help children with learning disabilities. The program led Jackson to develop the Brain Lab, a program that has helped students improve their language and art skills.
Children at the school also receive awards and certificates when they do a good job. Each certificate is colorful and personalized. “I make sure every student’s picture is on the award to personalize it and make it more memorable and exciting for them to have,” Jackson says. Jackson’s classroom is decorated with many brightly colored posters with instructional reading material and mathematical figures. The Brain Lab also features a Planet Cranium project that teaches children how to calculate numbers and do other math problems. Jackson says that when students achieve a task and really feel good about it, it’s like finding $20 in an old pair of jeans. “It’s really a breakthrough. It’s also great when we get feedback from a parent or guardian and they say that their child can’t wait to read the menu at the restaurant.” On May 24, 2008, the San Dimas Chamber of Commerce named Jackson teacher of the year for his hard work and his passion for teaching.
Newman says that there are so many different children coming from so many different backgrounds that McKinley has tried to set up programs to fit each and every need. There is a high percentage of Hispanic and African American children, but there are also plenty of white, Asian and racially mixed children who attend McKinley. The treatment team at McKinley focuses on building trust with the children. At one seminar, alumnus Leo Portugal, who lived at McKinley in 1970, spoke about his troubled times and how hard it was for him. Portugal told the children that he turned his life around with the help of McKinley. When alumni come back to speak to the children, it helps them realize they are not alone.
When the boys return to the intervention to discuss their struggles, the small boy has tied his shoelaces, dried his eyes, and is smiling with the others. Perhaps one day he will look back and remember when another person took him by the arm to save him from his fall, and told him he would be okay. He may also recall that it was at McKinley where he realized he would never have to be alone again.
You can help the children at McKinley by making a donation to the Children’s Center. You may donate new toys or clothing (not used) or make a cash donation. Gift cards are also appreciated so that children may to choose items they particularly need.
Please bring gifts to the administration office, and include receipts whenever possible. If you have any questions, please call Rhonda Beltran at ext. 2104, or Kami Newman at ext. 2127. McKinley Children’s Center is located at 762 West Cypress Street, San Dimas, Calif. 91773. The phone number is 909-599-1227.