Koinonia Homes for Teens: Helping foster youth overcome fatherlessness

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Camilla and Bill Ryland have been making homes for foster youth for over 30 years. Bill is the Administrator of Koinonia Homes for Teens in Loomis, California.

Return to Table of Contents: 2013 Winter Edition of Family Business Quarterly

Bill Ryland, and his wife Camilla, have spent over 30 years providing a family life for foster youth. Today their own children are grown, and they operate the Koinonia Home for Teens in Loomis, California.

A Level 12 dual diagnosis residential treatment program, Koinonia accommodates 12 girls and 18 boys in separate single family homes. The foster youth in addition to coming from very troubled families, are also in recovery from addiction. Many of the youth I spoke with had absent fathers due to drug addiction.

Each residence is staffed with a “house parent”.

“One of the first things we get across to these young people is that parenting is something that is done ‘for’ them, not ‘to’ them,” Ryland said. “The teenagers are absolutely brilliant when it comes to things like Facebook, but their life experience is extremely narrow.”  According to Ryland, very few had experienced eating together as a family at the table, or seen the ocean or snow. “So we provide a family setting with regular meal and bedtimes, and expands their horizons with field trips to the beach and mountains, and other places.

“I used to be an atheist. Now I believe in God. I had a dream that opened my eyes about beliefs and I just started reading the Bible…Peace is knowing what you don’t have control over. Now I am working on myself, to make myself better.” –Kyle M., 18

Camilla observes that the foster youth have grown up without expectations to contribute to family or society, and as a result, they have not learned the coping skills to handle the stresses of life. “We have expectations of these teens, and we believe in them,” she said. “Eventually they also believe in themselves – and there is hope.”

Trading ‘fake freedom’ for the power of discipline

The program is structured to enable the teenagers to experience a discipline that is simple, safe, and liberating. Most of the youth come from very dysfunctional homes, with very little structure or guidance. This program is geared around creating a functional family environment in each residence, regular school attendance and extracurricular activities.  “We are not raising compliant teenagers; rather we are raising competent adults,” Ryland said. The youth, ranging in age 13 to 18, attend school in a single classroom, where they are encouraged to work at their own pace and support one another. “It is amazing to see these kids when they realize they can do it,” he said.”Over time, there is a metamorphosis as they realize that there are people in their lives who will support them because they are worth it.”

Some of the key concepts in the program include:

  • A focus on the future of their own family and the quality of life.
  • Set the expectation to be treated like adults and think like adults
  • Experience doing something well and getting better at it
  • Hold individuals and one another accountable in a safe and secure environment

 “And there is hope in thine end, saith the LORD, That thy children shall come again to their own border.” Jeremiah 31:17

Voices of foster youth: Beauty from ashes

In February I met with some of the youth at Koinonia, and encountered some very poised, intelligent and insightful young minds. What I also found remarkable was the steady and calm demeanor with which they explained their life stories, much of it tragically impacted by drug addiction and abuse involving parents and other important adults, as well as themselves. In their voices, I detected a forgiving empowerment as they acknowledged responsibility for their own actions, accepted what their parents did without scorn, and detailed how their futures will be better. These young adults are magnificent blessings. It was a privilege to hear their stories, as highlighted below.

Billie K., 18 years old

Billie has been at the home for six months and started to get into trouble when he was 13 years old. He has two sisters (11 and 23 years old), and a brother (18). Growing up his dad was using meth. And while his dad never got into trouble with the law, he left the home for long periods of time. Throughout all this Billie’s mother remained faithful. There was no fighting. She went to church every once in a while.

“My dad decided to quit meth,” Billie said, “And then he wanted to reconnect. So he buys me things, makes me things – he’s trying to make up for the past. But I just wanted him to be there. I really missed having him around when I was younger. I didn’t know what guys did.” Billie knows his dad feels bad about abandoning him and the family, and he can talk to him. When Billie complains about having to be at the group home, his dad encourages him to stay the course.

Billie envisions a future with a good life. “I do not want to be the way my dad was,” Billie said. He meets with his house manager, Mark, every Friday morning. “Mark is there to help me if I need anything,” he said.

There is a job waiting for him at the steel mill outside of Reno, and Billie intends to attend University of Reno after graduating high school.

Justin C. and Billie K.

Justin C., 18 years old

Justin has been at the group home for a year and is in recovery from using alcohol and marijuana. “I started using when I was 14,” he said.

Justin has three older sisters and one older brother. He never had a stable home, or a father figure. Both parents were addicted to meth. “My family struggled,” Justin said. “There was not enough food, and my dad was using meth.” When Justin turned 14, and started to eat a lot, he was told to get his own food.

Justin sees a much better life, for himself. He is confident in his choice to not use drugs. “With drugs, I can’t determine what I want; it takes away your own will. The first high was the best. After that you will never get it again.” Justin is planning to go to American River College and get a job. In the near future, he plans to move in with his older sister, and work at a McDonald’s and Subway near by. He is plans to use an AB12 stipend to help with his living expenses while he goes to school.

Carlos F.

Carlos F., 15 years old

Carlos was born in San Diego and spent his early childhood years in Mexico. He returned to San Diego when he was eight years old. His dad was abusive and he spent a lot of time living with his grandmother. “My grandmother pretty much raised me,” he said.

Eventually Carlos became involved with gangs. He told me that the gangs gave him the father figure he never had, and it involved using drugs. “Gangs felt like it was my family,” he said, “You know, we got each other’s back.”

Eventually he moved in with his mom and his step dad and two step sisters. “But I didn’t appreciate my step dad,” he said. “I was hanging out with my friends and doing drugs.” Carlos was sent away to live with an uncle in another town, and was arrested for assault and ran away from the placement homes. Eventually he landed at Koinonia and has been sober for 10 months, and is starting to get along with his step dad.

Carlos envisions himself becoming the father he didn’t have growing up. “I will not spoil them and I will not put them down,” he said. “I will teach my children there are consequences for choices, and good things can come from good choices.”

Carlos plans to finish the program at Koinonia, get off probation, go to school, and listen to his parents. “I try to stay focused on the positive,” he said. “I want to be the brother my sisters deserve. I want to make my parents and my grandma proud.”

Kyle M., 18 years old

Kyle M.

When Kyle’ was two years old, his dad left. He moved to Oklahoma. Kyle was 13 years old when he met him again. “My mom married, and I had a step dad, but I always kept looking for someone else,” Kyle said. Kyle has a younger sister (13) and brother (9). Kyle has been to seven different high schools in the last three years, and he is on probation. He had struggled with depression; his 3-year-relationship with his girlfriend ended and his step dad had heart surgery. To cope with stress, he was using weed and alcohol. Kyle’s step dad never gave up on him. “When I crashed the new dirt bike my step dad bought me for my birthday, he didn’t get mad. He was there for me.”

“I used to be an atheist,” Kyle said. “Now I believe in God. I had a dream that opened my eyes about beliefs and I just started reading the Bible.”  According to Kyle, the Bible changes his thought process. “I react to things differently,” he said. “Peace is knowing what you don’t have control over. Now I am working on myself, to make myself better.”

Kyle acknowledged that he caused his mother a lot of pain; it is a lingering regret. But he is sober now and sees a future that includes graduation from high school, and possibly sign up for armed services. He is also thinking about Sierra College classes in graphic mechanical design.

Gaia Y.

Gaia’s dad was largely absent. “He was not really interested in me,” she said. “It angers me.” Gaia envisions someday having a husband who will not do drugs, and will make a home with her. She wants to marry one time and stay married.

Danielle R., Gaia Y., and Natalie W.

Natalie W.

Natalie has a 20-month old son who lives in another town until she has completed this program. His dad was abusive and they are not together. “I keep finding pieces of my dad in guys. I talk to my dad, but I don’t know him.” Natalie was searching to fill a void with the wrong type of guy. Today she wants to break the cycle and find the right kind of father. Here is her daddy list (for her son):

  • Sober
  • Respectful
  • Dependable
  • Responsible
  • Treating me with respect
  • Playing with my son
  • Good role model
  • Strong – protecting our family

Danielle R.

Danielle does not have relationships with her mom or dad. She was raised by her grandmother. When she did meet her dad, she was 15 years old. The question that haunted her was “What did I do wrong that he chose the drugs over me?” When she was living with her dad he treated her more like a friend. “I called him by his first name,” she said. “And then he would physically try to discipline me, so I left.”

Danielle said she had been looking for love in all the wrong places. She came to view men as all the same: users. “I didn’t  know what a father is,” she said.

Today Danielle looks to a future where she can find a man who is honest, reliable and is trustworthy. “I want to feel safe,” she said.

Dallas, 17 (no photo release available at time of publication)

Dallas’ father was in and out of her life. In her early childhood years, her mom and dad were living together. “I love my dad,” she said. “He was like a friend. He has an alcohol problem and was in and out of jail.” My grandmother made sure me and my sisters went to school and had food,” she said. “she was a father figure to me.”

When she was 13, her dad went into jail and she went into foster care. (Her mother is incarcerated in another state.)  He was released last year, but she has not talked to him yet.

Dallas listed her qualities in a husband and father:

  • No drugs
  • Respectful
  • Honest with me and himself
  • No need to hide anything
  • Safe
  • Compliments me
  • Helps  with cleaning and dinner

“I want a guy that will open up to me and spend time with me,” she said.

Return to Table of Contents: 2013 Winter Edition of Family Business Quarterly

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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna (jullien@surewest.net) and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.

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