For More Than 150 Years, This Agency Has Been Giving Kids a Chance
Leah Martin Photography
John Pappas doesn’t know exactly when (he’s now somewhat committed to finding out), but he does know that his maternal grandmother served on the board of the Children’s Study Home and, for a time, as its president.
Likewise, his father followed that same pattern. And his paternal grandmother served on the board as well.
And now, he’s making it three generations in a row. He joined the board in 2016, and he became its chair just last year. This tradition of service speaks to just how much this family believes in the mission of the Children’s Study Home, now known as Helix Human Services, following a needed rebranding that we’ll get into later.
“There’s certainly a lot of connection over the years with my family,” he said in a classic bit of understatement. “Things have changed mightily from then to now, but the underlying mission has not.”
But as long as this continual pattern of service to the agency on the part of Pappas and his predecessors might be, it still covers only a small fraction of its long history.
Indeed, this is the oldest social-service agency in Western Mass., tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, and its purpose was to provide care, comfort, and healing to destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War.
And there were many of them, said John Morse, the now-retired president of the Springfield-based dictionary maker Merriam Webster and long-time member of the agency’s board, who noted that Rachel Capem Merriam, wife of the company’s co-founder, was the agency’s first director.
Over the past 157 years, the agency, which has programs in Western Mass., the Berkshires, and Cape Cod, has moved well beyond its original mission, while remaining true to its purpose — providing relief to families and especially children in need.
“We all believe in the mission, which hasn’t changed over all these years,” Pappas said. “You have to give kids a chance — that’s what we’re all about. Your heart has to go out to kids that were born in less-fortunate circumstances; they have the power to create their own path and their own destiny, and you love to see it when they blossom.”
“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box. When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place.”
Need comes in many forms, he went on, and so do the programs created to address it. They include:
• The Mill Pond Schools, with locations in Springfield and the Berkshires. These facilities serve students — kindergarten through age 22 — who have social-emotional and/or behavioral challenges, a learning disability, or who may have a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, and they serve the ‘whole child,’ including the child’s family;
• The SHARP residential program, which is designed to support young people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. The program supports youth who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental-health and behavioral-health challenges, and may be struggling with their personal identity;
• The Family Wellness Center. A recent addition to the portfolio, the facility, located in Holyoke, offers a wide array of outpatient mental-health services, including individual therapy for anyone over age 5, family therapy, couples therapy, community-based therapy, telehealth, and parent education, among others;
• The Cottage residential program, an inclusive environment designed to support male clients, regardless of how they identify, who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental and behavioral challenges;
• The Family Reunification Support Program (FRSP), which supports Department of Children and Families-involved families whose children are not currently living at home but who are expected to return home within six months; and
• Fathers in Trust (FIT), a parent-education initiative that helps men ages 16 to 60 develop skills central to positive parenting, yielding healthy outcomes for children and families.
Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services, center, with several staff members. Formerly the Children’s Study Home, the nonprofit is the oldest social-services agency in Western Mass.
Slicing through all that, one reads the words ‘trauma,’ ‘youth,’ and ‘family’ early and quite often, and these are themes that defined this agency from the beginning, and continue to define it more than a century and a half later.
And the agency’s evolution continues even today. Indeed, between the time BusinessWest selected the Children’s Study Home as a Difference Maker for 2023 and this announcement issue, the agency rebranded to Helix Human Services and launched a search for a successor to Executive Director and CEO Will Dávila, who will become president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Villa of Hope in the spring.
Helix is coping with challenge the same way it has from the beginning, said Pappas — through a focus on the future, innovation, and … giving kids a chance.
A Long History of Service
There are many words than can sum up what it takes to persevere and serve those in need for 157 years, but none do it better than this one.
The Children’s Study Home has shown as much resilience as those it serves, said Pappas, noting that, over the past century and a half, it has endured myriad challenges on the way to delivering it various services.
And the challenges have continued into this century, and this decade, with everything from COVID and its many side effects to leadership changes and struggles with maintaining strong census at its homes and the Mill Pond Schools.
The agency perseveres because of the importance of its mission, said Pappas, adding that an agency doesn’t live to celebrate its sesquicentennial unless it is able to evolve, adapt, and cope with adversity. His grandmother and father could have told him that — and they probably did.
“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box,” he told BusinessWest. “When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place, but also take care of the family that they’re going home to, making sure that services are provided there and that the path they were on is not going to be traumatic moving forward.
“As we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”
“The mission is to do that for as many people as we can while also providing quality service,” he went on, adding that the process of change, evolution, and focusing on not just children but the family has continued into this century, with new programs and initiatives created to meet emerging needs.
Morse agreed. “Over the years, what the agency has gotten right is making subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, shifts to its mission in order to best address the needs of the community,” he said. “If you go back to when they adopted the name Children’s Study Home, I think they were focused on diagnosis and treatment of children with some kind of behavioral or emotional challenge. As admirable as that is, what the agency has been doing steadily since then is broadening its view of ‘how do you best meet the needs of children facing a broad range of challenges for a broad range of reasons?’
“What I see when I look at the Children’s Study Home now is about a dozen different kinds of programs that we’re running that tackle issues facing children and families in a variety of different directions,” he went on. “And I think that’s the right way to be thinking; as we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”
As an example, Pappas and Morse both cited the Family Wellness Center in Holyoke. It was established to address the surging need for outpatient mental-health services, a need that was there before COVID but made even more apparent by the pandemic, which strained families and individuals in many different ways.
“This is a walk-in clinic that anyone can use,” Pappas explained, adding that it was a timely and much-needed addition to the portfolio, and part of an overall operating philosophy he described in this simple yet poignant way: “leave people in a better place than when they came to the organization.”
Elaborating, he said this process of leaving people in a better place is never easy. Results come over time, and the road to progress is rarely smooth. The goal is to get them there.
“We’ve always been dynamic when it comes to looking to the future and where we can expand, strategically, not just for the sake of doing so,” he noted. “We know what we do best, and it’s really trauma-informed care. If we can be on the cutting edge of trauma-informed care, that’s where we want to be, with initiatives like the mental-health clinic.
“We don’t want people to be with the Children’s Study Home forever,” he went on. “But we want them to be at the Children’s Study Home for as long as they need to feel like they’re on solid ground again.”
Name of the Game
It was Shakespeare’s Juliet who famously asked the question, “what’s in a name?” and then followed it up with … “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Perhaps, but when it comes to nonprofits and their need to effectively convey who they are and what they do for a broad range of constituencies, a name carries plenty of weight.
And it is with that perspective that that the need to rebrand the Children’s Study Home was identified during a seven-month strategic planning process involving representatives of the board and the staff.
“Certainly, the agency’s work is known and appreciated by our referral and funding sources, our donors, board members, and sponsors,” Pappas said. “But we recognized there was work to be done to make sure our story and our brand reflects who we are today.”
Elaborating, he said none of the three words in the name — ‘children,’ ‘study,’ and ‘home’ — really work anymore, at least when it comes to shedding light on the agency’ broad mission.
Yes, they work to some extent, he said, noting, for example, that there is still a heavy focus on serving children, but something new and different was needed to get the message across.
“The goal isn’t to erase history, but to build upon it,” he went on. “I think we need to be dynamic; the name Children’s Study Home … while it has history and it had great intentions years and years ago, today it seems quite antiquated.”
By whatever name the agency is called, it will carry on as it has for the past 157 years, said Pappas, adding that there has always been a simple philosophy guiding it: “there’s no such thing as a bad kid — just kids who are brought up in tough circumstances.”
This organization now known as Helix Human Services exists to help change the equation so they are no longer in those circumstances, he went on, and it has been able to do that for several generations of young people.
And this clearly explains why this agency belongs in the category of Difference Makers.