Diary of a Housemom
Greta Stager is a native of Palmyra, Pa. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Messiah College and a master’s degree from Duquesne University. Greta and her husband Steve have extensive experience working with youth, including spending a year in Thailand, where Greta volunteered helping Tsunami victims and taught English at a university. The couple also resided the San Francisco area for two years.
Five years ago, the Stagers made the life-changing decision to become houseparents at Milton Hershey School® (MHS). Today they manage the daily lives of 11 high school girls. In this blog, Greta will share some of the challenges and rewards that make a houseparenting career at Milton Hershey School truly unique.
When not on the job, Greta enjoys travel, sports, outdoor activities, riding her motorcycle, spending time with family and friends, and antiquing.
This is the time of year when cabin fever sets in. Our student home has caught the cabin fever “bug,” and emotions have been high all around.
This week was an emotional rollercoaster. As the female head of a household of teenage girls, I usually bear the brunt of their emotional turmoil. Sometimes “I’m sorry you feel that way” can take the edge off of dissatisfaction with merits, grades, consequences, or choices. However, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to walk away and let time take care of the frustrations.
Over this past week, we worked close to five days, ’round the clock. It was Presidents Day weekend and even though a majority of the students go home for this break, student homes are still open and students are still on campus. In our home we had three students. The Justin Bieber movie was the hit of our Presidents Day Weekend vacation. I think I was more entertained by the girls and their reaction to it than the movie itself.
The students who went off campus for the break returned on Tuesday. After all bags were checked (it is a requirement for HP to search and inspect each students bag and suitcases) it was back to the routine of study time and set bed times.
VALENTINES & SUPER BOWL
At MHS, each division has merit levels. In the Senior Division, we have four levels: novice (not in good standing), brown (average but not working to potential), gold (working to potential), and Spartan (going above and beyond for home and school). This is based on a point system; each student has the opportunity to earn 15 points a day.
Each year we have a Valentine’s Day party in our student home, which we used as an incentive for earning merit points. Those on “gold” were allowed to invite a date or guest to the party. The party is a dressy casual event. My mom comes and helps me decorate with cut glass, candles, chocolate fountains and strawberries, linen table clothes, centerpieces, candy, mood lighting, and lots of festive music and decorations. The students are served a three-course meal, usually Italian-themed, and are served by my family and friends who volunteer to help with the evening.
Our kids had a really nice time. It was nice to meet some of our students’ boyfriends. Of course, my husband had to give them the official drill, which sends the girls off giggling and a bit embarrassed, but that’s what a good “dad” does.
The next day was the Super Bowl — a fun-filled event in our home this year in particular since a local favorite, the Steelers, were playing. One of our parents/sponsors gave the student home a bunch of snack food, drinks, and Pizza Hut gift cards, which we used for the occasion. It is really appreciated when parents/sponsors go out of their way to do things for the student home. We have another sponsor who sends holiday candy bags. We just received a box in the mail for Valentine’s Day. It makes the kids feel good, but it makes the houseparents feel good as well to know the parents/sponsors are part of our team.
This week we had two snow days. Most kids get excited about a snow day, and that is no different here at MHS. However since the bad weather was caused more by ice than snow, the excitement of playing outside was a bit less appealing. Usually, even senior high girls will go to play in the snow for hours. This is great for a houseparent because we all know it tires them out...which in turn means less time to get into mischief!
On the first day, after a two-hour delay called at 5:30 a.m., school was canceled at 8:00 a.m. This gave everyone a few extra winks, which is always a blessing. Around 9:30 two of my young ladies offered to cook brunch for the student home, a real treat for the housemother.
I believe in teaching each and every student to cook and to be self sufficient and independent. Every two weeks I assign one of the girls to be an assistant cook who plans meals, creates the grocery list, and develops a healthy menu for the week. The girls prepared chocolate chip pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and fruit. Brunch was served around 11. It was a peaceful morning.
I had a few students who were on activity restriction for some problems they caused for our quad flex couple. Being on restrictions on a snow day is especially unpleasant for the students, who. may only read, study, or draw. However the students had a good attitude throughout the day and by evening we were able to let them off restrictions and allow them to have a few freedoms that evening.
All in all, it was a fun, relaxing day, but we knew another storm was brewing and many wondered if we would have school the next day.
That night we received a phone call that school would start two hours late the next day. We learned quickly in our first year not to tell the kids the night before if we are have a delay or no school because it can result in late-night parties, jittery excitement, and mischief.
The next morning, school was canceled. The kids actually were a bit disappointed since some had athletic games and activities after school that they were looking forward to. There was a ban on driving the student home vans until 2:00 p.m. When it was determined that it was safe to drive, Steve and I knew we had to get everyone out of the house. So, we took a trip outside to buy subs and rent a movie. The kids asked if we could eat and watch the movie together in the rec room. Normally, food is never allowed in the rec room or living room, but we asked for four people to be responsible for the cleanup of these areas. We had the volunteers and told them if anything was not taken care of they would be responsible, and they all agreed. In the end, I was impressed — not a single mess!
Overall, two days of 13 people hanging out together went well. The kids got along and we had a great time. I was proud of my girls. We played lots of games, read books, colored, baked, shoveled ice/snow, watched TV and movies and had a good time. Everyone made the best out of an icy mess!
GETTING ON TRACK
The week started with a meeting of all houseparents in Founders Hall, the administrative headquarters of Milton Hershey School. All of the supervisors shared stories and photos of how houseparents demonstrate the School’s four “Sacred Values” — Mutual Respect, Commitment to Mission, Integrity, and Positive Spirit. Although these meetings occur once or twice a year, they are so vital to houseparents’ morale. We are in the trenches, on the front line, and rarely take the time to step back and say, “Wow, we’re doing a good job.” Moments like these fill our sails with a fresh wind.
By that evening, however, I was tired because it was my 11th day of working and not getting a day to myself or just time to be with my husband (you may work together but quality time spent together can be hard to find). I was looking forward to a few days off. However to take some time off it takes a good amount of planning. I usually leave three to four pages of typed notes and the handbook of student home expectations, schedules, and activities of all the kids. So it can take two or three hours to prepare to take three days off. Don’t get me wrong – every effort is worth it!
The people that cover you on your time off are a weekend relief couple or a flex couple, depending if you are on a schedule where you have every other weekend off or on a 12/3 schedule, where you work 12 days and have three days off. We are on the 12/3 scheduled and love it! New houseparents often are asked to be a part of the 12/3 rotation as a quad flex couple. This couple travels among four homes. Every third day they are at a different home in the quad. It can be difficult, but it can help you to get placed in a regular, full-time position more quickly.
On our 12th day, I attended a student performance tracker meeting. At this meeting, houseparents, teachers, administrators, and counselors discuss a student’s progress. This usually occurs when a student is identified as needing extra help or is not progressing to the level he or she should be. These can be very effective. It is a time when all departments can gather together for the sake of a student. At this session, we discussed a student whose first marking period grade point average was 83 percent but dropped to a 72 percent in the second marking period. We determined that time management was her biggest hurdle, so we created a structured schedule for her and bought her a watch and a few egg timers. Now she also will be required to have her homework checked and prove that she has studied for tests. Sometimes it takes collaboration – and a little creativity – to get students on track.
LEARNING TO GIVE BACK
It started off as a great week. Eight of my students volunteered to help a struggling family in the local area clean and organize their home. The project was organized through a local church, Lancaster County Bible Church (LCBC). We spent a good five hours working on their home, helping to clean, organize, and give the family — and especially the oldest daughter — a day off. This young lady’s father has cancer, and the mother is not part of the picture. All of her younger siblings have some type of disability. I was proud of my ladies! It is vital for the students of MHS to give back to their communities. It not only helps them understand other people’s situations but also increases their own confidence.
Each week, the students of MHS are required to earn one hour of community service. Most of the time, students volunteer with a teacher, librarian, or other departments on campus. There are other options as well. Students in a program called “Blankets for Babies” spend about two hours each week crocheting blankets for premature babies at the Hershey Medical Center. Other opportunities in the Senior Division include tutoring elementary students, teaching at junior chapel, cleaning elementary homes, and managing sports teams. If community service is not completed that week they are automatically placed on “novice level,” which is like being grounded. That is how important community service is at MHS.
On Sundays, students and houseparents are required to go to chapel. This is a Christian service. Pastor Wagner (who,coincidentally, was my youth leader when I was growing up) does a great job engaging the students and relating messages that talk to the kids. After chapel, we eat and start study time, so we can have the rest of Sunday to relax and spend as a “family.” Sunday evenings we have our family night, after we clean our student home. We do a variety of things —from bingo, trivia games, kick ball, hide and seek in the dark, movie night, root beer float night, sundae night, campfires and s’mores, and much more.
Monday brought with it a good amount of work. First Steve and I attended the Monday weekly Home Life meeting with our administrators and directors. That evening the phone rang off the hook with calls from parents/sponsors and other houseparents. One parent was beside herself, stating her daughter wants to leave the School and she does not know what to do about this problem. These can be difficult phone calls. When I took the job as a houseparent. I never really knew the large amount of time I would spend talking to and consoling sponsors/parents. But it is a vital role in being a houseparent.
I also had to type notes out for our "quad flex couple," who would be covering our home for the next three days. In this position, the couple rotates among four homes to cover days off, It was their first time covering for us. The schedule Steve and I work is called the 12/3 schedule, which means we work for 12 days, then have three days off. This is a great program. Even though the schedule rotates and your days off are not the same every 12 days, it is nice to have that one extra night of sleep. Sleep is vital to a houseparent!
Our quad flex did a great job, despite the crisis with the student home van. It had snowed and classes were on a late-start schedule. While getting ready to drive the kids to school,one girls’ book bags went through the van side window, sending glass everywhere. The students in the van had to be taken to the Health Center to check for any cuts or glass in their skin. This is policy, if any student is involved in any accident involving a vehicle, she must be examined by the medical staff. By the time we returned ,our van was fixed and everything was taken care of.
Our week ended with our annual formal dinner out. The School requires houseparents to have 4 formal meals a year. For this one, we took the girls to Buca di Beppo, a restaurant in Reading, which is about 45 miles from Hershey. We had a blast and boy did we eat!
As I finish this blog I am typing at night and hear only the tap of my keyboard. Everyone is in bed. Finally, peace and quiet has come over the home. In a senior high girls’ home you can only imagine the chitchat, giggles, and tears that occur on a continuous basis. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At MHS, we do not celebrate the holiday with a day off from school. Instead, it is a “day on” to learn about the Rev. King and to perform community service, as he did and in his honor.
A VISIT FROM AN ALUMNI; DEATH OF A FRIEND
Although there is truly no "typical" day in the life of an MHS houseparent, we can almost always count on it being hectic! Tuesdays are our weekly meeting with Home Life, the department that oversees all student homes and houseparents. Steve also coaches the freshman basketball team, so he was off doing that today while I caught up on e-mails, checked homework, made dinner, and talked to other houseparents who called looking for advice or with questions. It is almost impossible to do this job without the support, friendship, and trust of other houseparents to help you through times when you are unsure, need a question answered, or just need a shoulder to cry or laugh on. Without that connection to your colleagues, the world of houseparenting can easily become a sheltered life.
Later on Tuesday one of my alumni returned to campus to spend the night. We had a great time! Her younger sister lives in our home, and Laura is a freshman at Lebanon Valley College and made the varsity field hockey team this year. We reminisced and she told me all the funny things they did while she was here that my husband and I didn’t know about – such as the times she and her roommate snuck out to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat at midnight or when they snuck into the rec room to watch a late show in the middle of the night. All things we can look back on and laugh at now, but if we would have "caught" them, of course there would have been consequences. Having an alumna visit us and spend the night is one of the highs on my houseparenting rollercoaster ride.
When a graduate returns to visit, it also is valuable for my 9th graders. A student who has graduated, is doing well, and appreciated her time at MHS and her student home gives a positive example for the younger girls. So often 9th graders really struggle with being at MHS because they don’t understand the big picture and the future still seems so far away. This year I have seven 9th graders, which is not the normal ratio; however the seven juniors we had last year have moved on to the School’s independent living program, called Transitional Living. This year has been more challenging. Ninth-graders require more work on time management and social and interactive skills.
Also on Tuesday, I spoke with a mother (we sometimes refer to them as "sponsors" since not all students are placed in the School by a parent) for an hour about her daughter and how we can all helping her daughter succeed at MHS. I finally sat down on the couch about 11:30 p.m. when there was a knock on the door. It was one of my students, letting me know that another student was sick. In a Senior Division home it is not often that houseparents are up are night with a sick student. But this student was hurting pretty bad with the stomach flu. I checked her temp, got everything cleaned up, and managed to get her to bed around 1:00 a.m. She didn’t have a fever so she did not need to go to the Health Center, although I still called them. Her roommate and I got her tucked into bed, a trash can at her side. I decided to sleep on the couch that night since I wanted to be close to the door if she needed me. I never heard from her and was glad she had gotten some sleep.
However, 6:00 a.m. Wednesday came quickly. Thankfully my husband is the early riser and gets up at 5:15 a.m. to get the girls up at 6:00 a.m.
Wednesday evening was a fairly normal night. We take our students to Lancaster County Bible Church, which has an amazing youth group program. The girls love going; it is a real diversion from their daily routine and allows them to gain friendships with other students in the community as well as grow spiritually. This has been a great avenue for deep spiritual conversations with my students. It also has opened doors for our students to get involved in community service in the local area.
Thursday was a busy day with meetings and such. I am part of a committee called Home Life Outreach, which is a group of houseparents from all divisions who meet with divisional heads, leaders, and administrators, as well as the senior vice president and president of the School. This is an opportunity for all parties to gain understanding and appreciation for each other. It is an avenue for houseparents to vocalize concerns, new ideas, and thoughts about the culture of the School.
Friday was a hard day for the home. We had to take our long-time companion and friend Mauja, our dog, to the vet to be put to sleep. She was a faithful friend to all the kids who came through the door. We even have a beautiful canvas picture of her that one of our girls painted in art class hanging in the student home. That picture will forever be cherished. She was a lab/husky mix who lived till she was 15 years old. I know this evening there will be many emotions and already much my husband and I are going through. It will be a quiet evening in the home.
BACK TO SCHOOL
I often get asked what it is like to be a houseparent at Milton Hershey School. I can tell you, if you are looking for a job where you can put your feet up, go about your normal life, and "hang out" with kids , this probably is not the job for you. But if you are a flexible person with the ability to love through compassion, discipline, and accountability; spend time helping kids grow and learn; and developing kids spiritually, physically, emotionally, this might be the place for you.
Through this blog, I hope to offer insights to those of you considering a houseparenting career at MHS – and to those who simply would like to know more about life in a student home. I’ll begin my story several weeks ago, when our students came back to MHS after their long winter break. Steve and I were rested from two weeks off duty and ready to welcome the girls back to our home.
Then, one of the last students arrived and I noticed that she had colored her hair. Apparently, there is a new fashion called the peek-a-boo look, which is coloring the bottom part of one’s hair black and the top bright blonde. Our school’s standards call for modest and professional dress and appearance, so I ended up running to the local drugstore, bought some hair color, and back to my apartment the student and I went. I sent an email to my supervisor (whose title is Home Life Administrator or HLA) and sent the student to school the next day hoping she did not get any further consequences. However, if she did, it would have been okay since she knew the rules of the school before she chose to color her hair at home over break.
After all of our students arrived back at the student home, we had a family meeting, gave an encouraging pep talk, and shared with the girls all the exciting events we had planned for them for the remainder of the year. Our hope was that this would keep them motivated! Our plans included a Hershey Bears hockey game, dinner at Buca di Beppo, a Valentine’s Day formal party (chocolate fountain and all), and trips to Baltimore and the beach. We then sent them to bed hoping they would sleep well and be ready to get up early the next day — something I am sure they did not do over their break (and neither did I).
However, I had a hard time falling asleep (which often happens as a houseparent), thinking of all the things I would need to do that week.Through my apartment door I heard some noise. Nothing to be concerned about, so I decided to get up and go to the office to check my e-mails at (1 a.m.!). Well the noise I had been hearing were a few of my 9th graders having their own nail polish and hair party. After "shooing" them off to bed, I stayed in the office a bit longer to make sure they feel asleep. Not too much later, I went back to my apartment and finally made it to bed. Of course for the young ladies the next day came with some discipline (3 days of restrictions — sitting in a quiet area, studying with no option for TV, computer or social phone calls).
My following day was pretty normal, except I had a visit from my supervisor. She had brought a suitcase from one of my students who could not find hers the previous day after getting off the return bus from her hometown. My student had told me she was bringing back the ashes of her dog she had to put to sleep. She thought her mother might be losing their apartment and did not want this to get lost in the transition. Of course when our HLA had initially opened the suitcase she was surprised to see this. I guess nothing can surprise us too much. It’s all in a day’s work.