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An ex-con finds 'magic' for himself, his troubled teens, at Youth Home 

click to enlarge TOGETHER AGAIN: Tyler, Tiffany and Travis French.
  • TOGETHER AGAIN: Tyler, Tiffany and Travis French.

When Travis French was in prison, he thought about his kids, the troubles he heard they were having, and resolved to get them and care for them when he got out.

"I've been shot, been stabbed, lived rough. But the most painful thing is watching your kids grow up from behind bars," French, 51, said.

French was crying, and apologizing for it, though he did not need to. His tears were of joy. He's out of prison, he's clean, he has his kids. His daughter is about to graduate from Youth Home's school for outpatients. His life "is the best it's ever been," he said, and he credits Youth Home's help for that.

Youth Home is sort of a misnomer. The agency is widely known for its inpatient care for kids ages 12 to 14 with behavioral issues. But Youth Home also operates an outpatient clinic for anyone needing help and the French family made use of both to get their lives back on track.

That French wanted to talk publicly about the problems his family has overcome — he asked to be interviewed, instead of the other way around — is "pivotal in our field," Chrissy Chatham, director of development for Youth Home, said. Mental health problems are largely swept under the rug, unlike breast or prostate cancer, she said, and so don't have spokesmen. French is letting people know "you don't have to do it alone," she said.

Said French, "I don't think that, if it weren't for Youth Home, that I'd be clean."

French, of North Little Rock, who himself came from a family wrecked by drug addiction and alcoholism, began to use drugs — methamphetamines and alcohol — at an early age. His first trip to prison was when he was "15 or 16," he said, on burglary and theft of property charges. "I didn't have a clue," he said of his thinking. He served three years. After prison, he struggled. He eventually had two children, Tyler, now 20, and Tiffany, who will be 18 on Dec. 15. He could not stay clean and "got in a world of trouble," going back to prison for seven-and-a-half years, when Tyler was 9 and Tiffany 7. Even in prison, he was able to keep using, but when he was released in 2009, he'd been clean for several months. He wanted his kids back.

While he was in prison, his children had suffered, shuffled around between various family members. Both suffered physical abuse; Tiffany was also sexually abused. He promised his son that they'd go into business together when he was released. He took custody of them immediately after he was.

"I was flat broke. I had two kids that were a mess," French said. What he did know was that if he could stay off drugs, "they'd have a chance."

The kids were wary. "I didn't know crap about him," Tyler French said of his father.

"I wanted to be a father, but I didn't know how," French said. He felt so guilty about not being there for them when they were growing up that "they got away with murder" at his home, he said.

Tiffany, dressed in a loose white shirt and tie and with her blonde hair pulled back tightly, said that while her father was in prison, "I was miserable all the time," Tiffany said. "My brother had a big part of taking care of me. He didn't hit me." Both recalled being told by a family member at dinner, "Eat it or you wear it." That was the least of it. When the jailed French heard about what was happening, "all I could do was tell them to hang on."

Luckily, French knew about Youth Home. Tyler had already seen a therapist at Youth Home. (Tyler and his father did not want to talk about how that came about.) Tiffany, failing school and misbehaving, needed help as well. "Me and Tiffany went in" to Youth Home, French said, for family counseling.

And here is where the story differs from that of many troubled families. The therapist, Tammy Rhyne, told French he needed therapy, too. "She could see it," his need, "and brought it up," French said. "I said, 'You're crazy.' " But he thought about it, gave in to it. "And then the magic started happening ... the better I got, the better they got."

After getting outpatient help, Tiffany was admitted to residential treatment in June 2012 for six months. "I was wanting to kill myself. I hadn't gotten over the abandonment stuff," she said. And like most troubled kids, she hated the new, strict environment she encountered at Youth Home, where behaviors were noted and met with consequences. But, she shrugged, "I got used to it."

More than that, Tiffany learned "how to process" her thoughts, and "how to write about what I'm feeling." After she completed residential treatment, she continued to go there for school. She has completed school there, and plans to get a GED and work.

Like most teens, Tiffany wasn't forthcoming with an adult, especially one she did not know. But finally she told a reporter, "There is a void in my stomach," one she'd filled with smoking and other comforting, but bad, behavior. "It used to be this big," she said, stretching her arms wide, "and now it's like [this]," she said making a little circle with her hands. And while she expressed relief she was graduating and not having to attend Youth Home's school any longer, as the interview was about to wrap up, she spoke up again. "Please mention Miss Bright," she said, and please mention Mr. Lawrence. Bright Woodward and Lawrence Russell are the paraprofessionals that Tiffany worked with while in residential treatment. They clearly had helped fill the void.

French still spoils his kids. He's bought a car for Tiffany that she can use to get a job. He's also made good on the promise he made Tyler: Both had paint on their hands from their painting/carpentry business. French was still wiping away tears as the interview ended.

All will continue outpatient therapy at the clinic.

Youth Home Inc., at 20400 Colonel Glenn Road, serves around 200 children ages 12-17 a year in its residential facility. It has 70 intensive inpatient beds and eight community inpatient beds. The residential facility has a 24-hour nursing staff, as well as psychiatrists and other staff. Ten therapists, half off-campus in elementary and middle schools in the Pulaski County Special School District, see patients at Youth Home. Its outpatient clinic offers services to all comers for all problems.

Many of the children served by Youth Home have suffered physical and sexual abuse; some suffer from organic disease. Youth Home is reimbursed by Medicaid for those patients who are eligible. That reimbursement level has not risen since 2001, director of development Chrissy Chatham said, and the organization fears the future will hold less reimbursement, not more. Youth Home's main fundraiser is Eggshibition, a live and silent auction of egg-shaped objects created by artists and celebrities.

Some of the children who live at Youth Home will not be able to return home on Christmas Day. Donations of gifts for the children are much appreciated. Gifts should be delivered before Dec. 14, when volunteers will start wrapping the gifts in the gymnasium. Gift wrapping volunteers are welcome; Chatham will post a volunteer update on the Youth Home Facebook page.

To donate to Youth Home or get more information, call 821-5500 or 800-728-6452.

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