Youth center nearly ready to change lives

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 10, 2002

Losing a game of pool more than three decades ago is what ultimately landed Dick Munchel in this corner pocket of Hampton Roads.

Munchel, the chief executive officer of the Hampton Roads Youth Center, came to Suffolk about two years with the dream of establishing a local residential center to help children who tend to fall through the cracks of their dysfunctional families.

Initially armed with the backing of a group of mostly Virginia Beach investors and a $3-million fund-raising goal, Munchel is expecting to open the doors of the HRYC in February 2003.


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Despite the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies and other unrelated economic downturns, Munchel, along with his board of directors from across the region, have successfully generated nearly $2.2 million over the past two years.

Until moving to Suffolk, Munchel spent 13 yeas as executive director of a similar residential treatment program in Goochland. While under his direction, Elk Hill experienced more than $4 million in expansion and a student population that jumped from 10 to more than 50.

Munchel, a former billiards champion who played up and down the East Coast, in the 1970s ran into a stroke of bad luck after playing a game in his native Ohio. A friend, who happened to own a children’s center, offered to loan him $1,000, repayable only by working it off at his facility.

&uot;I loved it and end up staying,&uot; said Munchel. While working full time and helping raise his young family he went on to earn his master’s degree in social work.

Today, renovations to the Hampton Roads Youth Center, which will be located in the former Pioneer Southern Building on Kenyon Road, are almost complete, he said.

Much of the work and labor has been donated by organizations and companies across Hampton Roads

– including new window installation, professionally equipped kitchens, new carpeting, and lawn maintenance of the 55-acre site.

&uot;This is a good program and a lot of people know the need for one like this exists in Hampton Roads,&uot; Munchel said. &uot;Most people know someone who will benefit from a program like this.

&uot;That’s why people are so willing to help us.&uot;

Board member Dana Adams of Suffolk agreed.

&uot;That’s what is so wonderful about this,&uot; Adams said. &uot;Until HRYC opens, there is no other place in the area that will accept children with emotional problems who are not yet in terrible trouble.

&uot;The whole idea is that the people in Tidewater and their children will have somewhere local they can go to work through their problems with counseling before things get too bad,&uot; she continued. &uot;I know a lot of people who have had to send their kids far away for treatment. That’s hard to do.&uot;

The proximity of families to the child is one of the key elements that will make HRYC – which will serve only youngsters within this region – different from similar facilities.

&uot;Most residential centers center revolve their treatment programs around the child,&uot; Munchel said. &uot;I’m the exact opposite.

&uot;My primary goal is working with the family,&uot; he said. &uot;Children’s issues are almost never just about the child.

&uot;…If I don’t work with the family, if I don’t bring the kid to the point where he or she is prepared for home life, then I’ve done a disservice to all.&uot;

Individual, family and group counseling play a significant role in the HRYC’s plan for children.

The residential school will also include academics in classes with a 5-to-1-student/teacher ratio, giving students more one-on-one instruction time. Studies of similar program nationwide indicate that students typically advance three grade levels during one year in the program.

Unlike some programs, parents can’t simply commit a child into the program, Munchel said. The most important success factor is the child’s desire to participate.

Additionally, unlike many residential programs, referrals from doctors, churches, social service departments or other legal sources aren’t needed for the HRYC.

Families just need to initiate contact with the HRYC in late February. Applicants will be screened and interviewed on a first-come, first serve basis, Munchel said. He expects to take three months to fill the 20 slots, probably all with boys this time.

The cost of a year’s service at the HRYC would be approximately $55,000 annually, Munchel said. But interested families should not let the prices deter them, he added.

Much of the $3 million HRYC board has raised is earmarked for helping fund the tuition fees. Families will only be asked to pay what they can afford according to the HRYC’s formula.

Initially, neighbors in the surrounding Oak Ridge community expressed repeated concerns that the youth center would house kids that some consider to be juvenile delinquents.

That is not the case, Munchel stressed.

&uot;This program is designed to catch kid who are considered at-risk for getting into deeper trouble as they get older,&uot; he said. &uot;This is preventative.&uot;

Additionally, as part of the program, the youths will volunteer on different projects. &uot;I believe it is important for them to know what it feels like to give back to their community,&uot; Munchel said.

The youth center will open in February will plans to take in 20 children from the region. He is confident spaces will fill quickly; in the past three weeks alone, he’s had a half-dozen phone calls or visits from families interested in the HRYC services. He currently refers those families to services that can help them immediately.

Over the next decade, Munchel is hopeful HRYC will experience the same growth that Elk Hill did during his tenure there.

Eventually, he expects the HRYC’s campus will include six 10-person cabins for the kids, each of which will be staffed with a counselor 24 hours a day; a cafeteria equipped to serve 75 people; a recreation center, a separate school building; and athletic fields.

As the youth center grows over the next decade, he expects its population will cap off with 60 youngsters ranging from in age from 12 to 18.

&uot;That’s always a good target number,&uot; Munchel said. &uot;The higher it goes, the more levels of bureaucracy are created. I’m a believer and so is the board in that we want to have bureaucracy kept to a minimum.

&uot;Our business is solution driven. Most bureaucracy bogs down the time you could be spending solving problems.

&uot;We are in the business of changing lives. It is not a numbers game.&uot;

Although the HRYC has gather a great deal of financial support from companies and founda5tions nationwide, many have taken a &uot;Missouri state of mind&uot; status.

&uot;They are from the Show-me state,&uot; Munchel said. &uot;That is, they want to see a track record first before they make a contribution.

&uot;They are telling up to reapply in a couple of years, once we have gotten off the ground good.&uot;

And although he hasn’t shot pool in several years, Munchel already has a table in the common recreation room the first two groups of boys will share.

&uot;It’s a great conversation piece,&uot; he said. &uot;And you never know when it might come in handy with the kids.&uot;