Impacting young lives
Whether it was as a student at Bluffton, a teacher of children with severe emotional disorders or, since last April, a house mother in a group home for adolescents, Carrie (Purnhagen) Wilson believes she has been where she was meant to be.
Along the way, the 1996 alumna found her passion, for helping youth who need it most. Seven of them, including six teenagers from a variety of difficult backgrounds, are living with Wilson; her husband, Rick; and their two youngest children at Clear Creek Farm, a nonprofit, privately funded home outside Sidney, Ohio.
“You’re the only mom I’ve had who cares,” one of them told her recently.
She admittedly didn’t know much about Bluffton, but it was the only college where she applied as a senior at Piqua (Ohio) High School. And it changed her perspective, says Wilson, who professed her Christian faith as a first-year student and became involved in campus ministries.
“I really found who I was at Bluffton,” she says. “It was where God wanted me to be.”
An elementary education major, she planned to teach, but instead spent the first 16 months after graduation in voluntary service with the Mennonite Board of Missions in Colorado. She started as a counselor at a Boys and Girls Club, running a summer camp and an after-school program.
She soon became coordinator of two after-school programs, then went into teaching for a combined four years in preschool and kindergarten.
Returning to Ohio with her husband in 2001, Wilson taught students with severe behavioral issues—in elementary through high school—for 13 years in Miami County.
With a temporary certificate at first, she thought of the job as a one-year “bridge” to something else, but again became convinced “that was where I was supposed to be.”
“Many kids would show up at my door,” and a couple sometimes stayed at her house because of issues at theirs, she says. “They really had a lot to offer,” she adds, and while big gains couldn’t be expected in their behavior, “they were great kids if you established a relationship and worked on it.”
About five years ago, after working with youth both at a juvenile facility and as a paraprofessional at Piqua High School, her husband became a house manager at Clear Creek Farm. A couple years later, the Wilsons adopted a 16-year-old boy who had lived there and, shortly after that, were asked to be relief house parents, filling in for the couple in the position when they were away.
By last summer, the Wilsons knew they would be soon become full-time house parents, allowing Carrie to be a stay-at-home mom last school year before moving in with her seven new children in April.
“We tell people we are professional parents,” she laughs. Saying you’re a stay-at-home mom sounds great to some people, she points out—until you mention the part about taking the kids to 148 appointments and commitments in one month, as the Wilsons did in July.
Clear Creek Farm is licensed by the state and must follow guidelines for doctor, dental and vision checks, among other things. Youngsters in the program also go to counseling and, once they’re 16 and qualify behaviorally, can have jobs. Five of her teenagers do, but because they can’t have driver’s licenses, the Wilsons handle that transportation, too.
Living with their expanded family involves considerable “trial and error,” admits Carrie, whose adopted son is now 19, a high school graduate, working full time and engaged.
The Wilsons hold the seven newcomers in their lives—four girls and three boys, also including a 10-year-old—to high expectations; try to provide new opportunities for them; encourage them to think about their future; and don’t accept their past as an excuse, she says.
“They don’t have to be satisfied with the hand they’ve been dealt. They have a chance to change that,” she notes. “They just have to deal with that and decide what role, positive or negative, it will have in their lives.”
In short, “we treat them as we would our own children”— Nicholas, 13, and Aubie, 8. The relationship between the two sets of youngsters is like siblings, she adds. “Sometimes, they love each other; sometimes they don’t.”
“A lot of what we deal with is typical teenager issues,” Wilson says. “We just have seven teens in one home, so the drama is magnified.”
But she and her husband try to continue focusing them on their future, planning for it and considering, for instance, how their behavior aligns with their goals. Five of the teens are either 17 or 18, with one preparing to join the Navy after leaving the group home at 18, another moving into an apartment soon and three graduating from high school next spring, including one who’s thinking about applying to Bluffton.
“We want them to understand that there’s a bigger picture,” Wilson explains. “You have to be prepared to go out and function within the community.”
The work is “tiring but very rewarding,” she says. “It’s really about relationships and the fact we have a chance to make a difference, to be the stability some of these kids have never had.”
“We think this is where God wants us to be.”