Phyllis Horvath is a tall, graceful woman radiating an energy like the sun’s – steady and warming, with occasional solar flares of enthusiasm. As executive director of Kinderhaven, she is the inner flame and guiding light of an organization dedicated to the welfare of neglected and abused children who have been removed from their homes for their own safety by Child Protection Services. They could not have a more compassionate, tireless benefactor and advocate.
After almost nine years as head of this extraordinary organization, Horvath is allowing herself the gift of conserving and concentrating her energies on the therapeutic aspect of the children’s care by resuming her original role as clinical director on a part-time basis. In this role, she will be able to focus on refining Kinderhaven’s program to include recent scientific findings related to the impact of trauma on child development.
But the beginning is always the best place to start, so let’s turn back to page one in the astonishing history of Kinderhaven and its dedicated leader.
Kinderhaven began as an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. The landlord of a little house on Alder Street bravely overruled some neighborhood concerns about these children coming to live there. The house welcomed the children to a safe environment overseen by two staff members, one of whom lived there to provide 24-hour care. The children now had a safe shelter and a well-ordered environment with a warm bed, plenty of food, clothing, school transportation and adult supervision. As wonderful as it was, there were no therapeutic resources in place and the children were only allowed to stay for 30 days. Something more was needed. The Kinderhaven family joins together at the dinner table each night sharing their day with one another.
That “something” turned out to be “someone.” Kinderhaven needed someone with practical executive skills, the vision of a world-changer, an unshakable love for children, an ability to raise funds, empathy for an overworked staff, and – it would be optimal if this person was also skilled in the therapeutic realm, for the sake of the damaged psyches and bruised emotions of the children. An impossible wish list, of course, so they honed in on the critical need for a clinical presence, and offered the part-time position to Phyllis Horvath. With 33 years in management, working with teenagers and building organizations, and years in private practice as a therapist and running a children’s program in a mental health clinic, Horvath was the perfect candidate. When she joined Kinderhaven in April of 2007, the changing organization soon asked her also to be the supervisor of direct care. Her success prompted them to ask her in October of that same year to add the position of Executive Director to her roster of duties. And their “impossible” wish list was fulfilled.
“I wore three hats for three years,” she recalls as calmly as if anyone could have done it, “and it was a good learning experience, very hands-on, putting therapeutic facets into place and learning to work with a nonprofit board.” Her passion for Kinderhaven’s cause gave the growing nonprofit a voice that touched the hearts of donors, community organizations and business owners.
Generosity, consensus and enthusiasm followed in her wake. Her very first try at a grant proved successful and subsequent efforts garnered over $120,000 for Kinderhaven during her tenure. To this day, she often writes handwritten letters to contributors, updating them on the children’s progress and describing what wonderful things have been done with their donation.
The changes she gradually worked into Kinderhaven took someone of her diverse skills to bring to reality. “I began with a therapeutic (her favorite word) program based on Theraplay, which is based on healthy parenting principles.
“When you are a family,” she explains, “the parents provide nurturing, engagement, structure and appropriate challenge with encouragement, like, ‘Yes you can get that grade, play that sport, do that dance!’ My goal was for Kinderhaven to operate like a home.” This orientation became their key difference from other shelters and was the catalyst for their metamorphosis from the original model.
When Horvath first arrived, the “level system” was in place. Applied in juvenile facilities where the children have severe behavior problems, this system encourages behavioral change through earning privileges at increasing levels. She replaced the level system with a parental model with natural consequences. Welcomed in the “crazy-quilt family structure” of aunts (the staff) and a grandmother (Phyllis herself), the children experienced a lot of love, structure without rigidity, and the security of procedures in place for administering medications, bedtimes, and getting to school on time. Coming from homes where the abuse made them feel at fault and triggered their survival behaviors, this new environment enabled them to see they weren’t at fault after all. Emotions once masked as reciprocal anger began to reveal themselves as pain, sadness, etc., and were processed appropriately. Relationships became possible, wounds healed, hearts opened and lives changed.
She removed the 30 day limit on a child’s stay because, “Every time a child is moved, it disrupts their life and makes recovery harder. So now they stay as long as needed, whether it’s months or years,” said Horvath.
Seeing a young child totally relaxed in its parents’ arms is a precious sight that can move Horvath to tears. “The home environment Kinderhaven creates is the heart environment that will heal the children,” she says. “The evolution they make is huge and you can see the results. A child comes in and leaves a very different individual.”
Horvath gives huge credit to her staff. “We ask them to come in with an open heart, and at the same time, healthy boundaries. And we try to be attentive to secondary trauma,” she adds, referring to the staff’s continued immersion in the lives of traumatized children whose pasts are sometimes horror stories.
“It traumatizes the caregiver in a lesser way and is a heavy weight, so we are alert to guard against burnout.” They are invested in having highly tenured individuals.
In returning now to her first love – clinical therapy – Horvath is excited to explore recent scientific research into how trauma affects brain development. “A teenager’s actions may resemble those of a three-year-old, because the part of their brain that handles emotions didn’t develop beyond that age, even though their chronological age may be 16,” she explains.
Because there are techniques today that can help change the ways a person’s brain is wired, Horvath is looking forward to “really exciting, bigger differences in their lives.” Seeing a young child totally relaxed in its parents’ arms is a precious sight that can move Horvath to tears. “The home environment Kinderhaven creates is the heart environment that will heal the children,” she says. “The evolution they make is huge and you can see the results. A child comes in and leaves a very different individual.”
She will also remain involved in staff training and the children’s evaluations. As board chair, Kathy Chambers expresses it, “She doesn’t want to leave and couldn’t if she tried. This transition is a wonderful win for everybody!”
Kinderhaven transforms young lives. For everyone involved, there is no doubt – they do it all for the children. Phyllis Horvath is a tall, graceful woman radiating an energy like the sun’s – steady and warming, with occasional solar flares of enthusiasm.
Contact information: Kinderhavensandpoint.com 208.265.2236 firstname.lastname@example.org