Memphis-based Youth Villages makes its mark across the nation

Updated: Jan. 6, 2020 at 9:23 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - From a small, struggling residential treatment center in Memphis to a nationwide organization recognized by the President of the United States, Youth Villages has become a respected leader in treating children with emotional and behavioral issues.

CEO Pat Lawler spent Monday afternoon with WMC Action News 5 reflecting on 40 years of helping thousands of children and their families lead happier, healthier lives.

When he took the helm in 1980, Youth Villages only had 9 employees in the Bluff City.

“We used to joke in the early years this was a laboratory of sorts and it really was for all of us," said Lawler. "We were learning and growing.”

Today, there are 3,000 employees at 72 locations in 20 states. Youth Villages provides counseling at residential treatment centers, like Janie’s House for abused girls and women, made possible with support from rocker Steven Tyler. An in-home program call Intercept teaches parenting skills to strengthen families.

“While we understand some young people need to be removed from their families, most can stay at home if that family has the necessary support," said Lawler.

Youth Villages also provides foster care with the ultimate goal of adoption.

“Because we know every young person needs a family and if they don’t have a family, we’re going to try and find them another one," he said.

After their father overdosed and their mother disappeared, Youth Villages helped 5-year-old Kobe and his 7-year-old brother Kaleb get adopted last November.

“They’re superheroes to me,” their adoptive mother Chinishe Ray told WMC Action News 5. “Because they’ve overcome so many obstacles. And yet, they’re so happy. They just keep going and they keep me going.”

Another Youth Villages program, Life Set, is a model now used nationwide.

“This is where young people aging out of the foster care system,” said Lawler, “really have a smooth transition to becoming a successful young adult.”

Lawler credits a strong board along with dedicated employees and volunteers for the growth and acclaim his agency has seen over the years.

In 2009, the White House gave Youth Villages a major shout-out, calling the non-profit “effective” and “innovative.” Lawler, recognized by the Harvard Business School and labeled one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News and World Report, met with President Obama that year.

After four successful decades, the man in charge of Youth Villages predicts the best is yet to come.

“While the past 40 years have been exciting, we really believe we have more significant initiatives we’re working on, not just here in Memphis, but across the country," said Lawler. "I think they could make an even bigger difference over the next 40 years.”

Lawler and Youth Villages advocate for legislative change at the state and federal levels to benefit children. They celebrated the passage of the Family First Act in 2018, which can vastly improve the child welfare system.

The non-profit is also getting ready to celebrate the opening of Bill’s Place. It’s a $22 million expansion of the residential treatment center in Bartlett that will double the facility’s capacity from 72 beds to 144 for kids ages 7 to18.

The expansion will also create about 200 new jobs in the Memphis area, including counselors and teachers. The center will be called Bill’s Place, named after Lawler’s father, Bill, who was an orphan. It’s expected to open in early 2020.

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