MARQUETTE - Cheyenne Emard, 17, is about to start her freshman year at Northern Michigan University, going into the culinary arts program, building on an interest in food and baking she has had for some years. She is set to participate in Superior Edge, a leadership and service organization for NMU students, and will be working in the university's dining halls and bakery department.
"I started off doing baking," she said. "I also love spices and just combining different things to make something new."
That move will be an important and positive transition from her current home at the campus of Teaching Family Homes in Sands Township, where she and other youth residents learn to be part of a family after coming from a variety of challenging situations.
A residential treatment facility for kids dealing with delinquency, abuse or neglect, Teaching Family Homes is designed as a family-oriented environment, with the youths living in a family setting with a set of house parents. Here TFH house parents Elisha, left, and Matthew Gomez stand with Cheyenne Emard, 17, outside one of the facility’s four houses. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Teaching Family Homes is a region-wide organization that provides a number of services from foster care placement to family counseling. One of its major operations within Marquette County, however, is its campus that combines four group homes for youths ages 5-17 who have been placed there due to delinquency, behavioral issues or instances of abuse and neglect.
The program is not just about housing the youths, most of whom are age 11 or older.
"We're a family-style environment," said staff member Matthew Gomez. "We try to create an environment that's really natural and really family-oriented so they don't feel they're away from home."
With four houses that can host eight kids each, the non-profit treatment program and staff work to help kids learn the basics of living in a stable family environment - everything from reporting their whereabouts to managing anger and emotions to doing chores - while the youths transition from other more intensive treatment centers, await placement in a foster or adoptive home or get ready to move home with their birth families.
Gomez and his wife Elisha work as house parents for one of the TFH houses, living full time in the home along with their own children, ages 2 and 4. Emard has been one of their youths since May.
The 40-acre campus includes the four houses, an on campus school where kids who aren't ready to attend public school take classes, recreational areas, an administrative building, gardens and a nature trail, which is open to the public.
"We try to make it as much like a family as possible," Elisha Gomez said.
Each morning, the staff and kids wake up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and get ready for school. Most of the youths attend the Gwinn public schools during the school year. After they get off the bus in the afternoon, each house has an academic hour where the students complete their homework and then eat dinner as a family.
Following dinner, there is usually a recreation time where the youths can play outside, watch tv or just hang out, as well as a time for daily chores. Each night also includes a family meeting, where members of the household can talk about their day and issues they came up against.
"It gives the kids a chance at self-government," Elisha Gomez said.
Depending on the season, the youths might also take trips to the beach, to special events on campus or around the community or attend a week-long summer camp.
To help enforce appropriate behavior, the youths earn positive points or negative points, depending on how they react to different situations, in a system modeled on the Boys Town program.
"They earn privileges based on the points they earn for the day," Elisha Gomez said.
"We never say, 'You get 1,000 points,'" Matthew Gomez said. "We let the kids know they earn their privileges rather than we're giving them out."
While the length of stay at TFH depends on each individual situation, most stay on campus around 10 months, with the end goal being to see the kids move out of the program either to living on their own if they are old enough, returning to their own families or moving on to a foster or adoptive family.
TFH staff, which includes 85 employees around the U.P. and 35 within Marquette County, go through a rigorous training process, particularly those who work with the youths.
Elisha Gomez said she was just completing an education degree and had recently married when she and Matthew began looking for work.
"One night we were talking about fostering and I said why don't we look into Teaching Family Homes," she said, adding she was familiar with the program from going to Northern.
The couple went through a two-week intensive training before starting work at the campus in December.
"It's phenomenal training. They give you all the tools you need," she said.
"The staff that's here is just incredible, very supportive," Matthew Gomez agreed.
Since arriving at TFH from another treatment facility, Emard has also begun to take on leadership responsibilities on campus, volunteering as a mentor for some of the younger residents, acting as campus mayor and the head of the youth advisory council and supervising a fundraising food truck called Miles for Smiles, which helps to provide money for special activities. She also helps with working at the campus medicine wheel, a quiet nature area planted with native plants.
When she moves on to Northern, as part of her Superior Edge responsibilities, she hopes to teach cooking and food safety classes at TFH.
For those in the community looking to get involved in the TFH community, there are a number of volunteer opportunities.
"Anything people want to do, we have a spot for them," said Lisa Burtch, TFH volunteer coordinator.
Time spent with a volunteer mentor or tutor is an important part of the life of the youths at TFH, Matthew Gomez said.
"It's really nice when the kids can get away from the house or just walk around campus with a volunteer," he said. "They love that. It makes them feel special that they have that attention."
Despite the challenges of working with youths, the Gomezes find their lives at TFH fulfilling.
"As much as the job can be challenging, there are great moments with these kids," Elisha Gomez said. "There's a way to find joy in every situation we come across."
Most important is the knowledge that their work helps make the future brighter for the kids they encounter.
"Knowing we get to plant these little seeds," Matthew Gomez said. "We might not get to see the end result, but knowing they can look back and say we were a support for them."
That can be a big lesson for someone who hasn't known a supportive family atmosphere, like many of the youths.
"Mostly that I don't have to be perfect," Emard said of what she has learned from her time at the campus. "There's people out there who really do care and just to be myself."
To learn more about volunteer opportunities at TFH, contact Burtch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is email@example.com.