Chuck Fabbro is driven to give it his best every day at work because of what happened when he went home for lunch one day, years ago.
Fabbro, principal of education at Wolverine Human Services Inc. in Vassar, said he was making a sandwich and someone knocked on his inside garage door. He thought it was weird.
“I opened it up and there’s this gentleman standing there and he’s like ‘Hey, do you remember me?’ and I’m like ‘Uh, no,’” Fabbro said.
The man had been doing landscape work at a neighbor’s house and recognized Fabbro. “He says ‘You were my advocate in like 1995,’” Fabbro said. “And he’s like ‘I want you to meet my wife.’ So I go down a few houses and he’s like ‘This is the guy I’m always telling you about. This is the guy that changed my life.’”
The man had been one of many success stories to come out of Wolverine Human Services – one of Vassar’s largest employers and facilities of its type in the state of Michigan about to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
And it hasn’t always been easy.
The nonprofit has faced backlash from neighbors at times, and continually had to adjust programming due to ever-changing guidelines and funding from the state.
Still, local officials say it’s important to Vassar, Tuscola County, and the entire region with roughly 200 employees coming from outside of Tuscola County.
“They’re a big business and that’s especially important with the foundry closing and things like that,” said Matthew Bierlein, a Tuscola County commissioner whose district includes Vassar. “And when it comes to their role in the community, they always have a crew that helps plant petunias, I’ve seen them weeding flowers before Vassar RiverFest, and they always seem to be at other events, as well.”
“They’re one of the biggest employers, and definitely one of the biggest water users,” said Brian Chapman, city manager, Vassar. “They’re also a good partner in a lot of community initiatives. They really help out in the areas where I may not have staff to do something or another group may need some assistance.”
Chapman pointed to a job earlier this summer, where several Wolverine residents repainted city signs.
“That’s something where I don’t necessarily have a lot of staff power to be able to do,” Chapman said. “To have a business in the community that is willing to partner with us on some of these maintenance issues that we have, or even bigger community initiatives, is a real positive to us.”
But for many, the question remains: What does Wolverine Human Services actually do in Vassar?
How Wolverine ended up in Vassar
Wolverine was founded in Grosse Pointe in 1987 by Robert Wollack, who had previously worked with “youth in a variety of settings and through his research and experience developed a treatment model which he believed would provide the best possible outcomes,” according to Wolverine’s website.
The name came from Wollack’s affinity for the University of Michigan (where he graduated) and thusly, the school’s mascot, said Derrick McCree, senior vice president. The nonprofit is not affiliated with the school.
Originally, the flagship program was called St. Jude’s Home for Boys focused solely on residential services for abused and/or neglected males.
The Wolverine Diagnostic, Assessment and Treatment Center opened in 1988 for boys up to 18 years old and in need of emergency assessment and shelter care.
Later in 1988, Wolverine opened three additional programs: Pioneer Work and Learn Center, Victors Center and Community Based Programs.
Victors Center, in Detroit, was developed to provide intensive residential services for cognitively impaired males, ages 12-17; and Community Based Programs was developed to provide foster care and supervised independent living services.
Wolverine still has operations in other parts of the state.
Pioneer Work and Learn Center represented Wolverine’s first move into Michigan’s thumb region. Originally located in Tuscola County’s Koylton Township, the program was located within a 70-acre camp (about a mile south of the village of Kingston on Kingston Road) and developed to provide a unique six-month residential treatment program with vocational work study and experiential outdoor activities, combined with a six-month aftercare program.
It was a contentious time.
A group called the Concerned Citizens of Koylton Township were adamantly opposed to the camp’s new use that expanded it beyond a summer camp for youths, which is what it had been for decades. Pioneer Work and Learn and township officials went through what was called “a bitter 3.5-year zoning battle” that rose all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Four years later, Pioneer Work and Learn moved to Vassar, its current location, due to what one official at the time reportedly called the “uncertain environment” of the Kingston area. It wouldn’t be the last time neighbors took issue with Wolverine’s operations.
Who’s at Wolverine in Vassar
The nonprofit primarily provides services for children up to 18 years of age. Through the end of September, more than 420 children – often called “clients” by management and staff – have been through the campus this year. Currently, there are about 180 clients at the campus, which is down from previous years.
Clients typically end up at Wolverine through the juvenile justice system.
In short, adults are convicted and sent to prison as punishment and children are adjudicated and sent to facilities like Wolverine for rehabilitation.
Wolverine officials tell the state what kind of services they offer and an “assignment officer” determines which of Wolverine’s several programs children are assigned.
Residents are classified as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors, but it refers to how long they have been in the program versus grade level like at a traditional high school.
Students come from all backgrounds and from across the entire state.
“We’ve had residents from all 83 counties in the state,” McCree said. “On any given day we’ll have about 40 different counties represented.”
Funding comes primarily from the state and child care funds of counties that utilize Wolverine’s services. According to Wolverine’s 2013 Form 990, the tax form nonprofits file with the IRS and are open to the public, the nonprofit had revenue of about $25.7 million on expenses of $24.9 million. Its net assets were $10.2 million.
And residents are a big part of the community.
They have helped with the Vassar Pumpkin Roll for years and assist with Keep Vassar Beautiful, Vassar parks, Vassar RiverFest, and more.
Last year, they put together more than 150 Operation Christmas Child boxes that were sent to needy children around the world.
They did a bake sale and hosted a chicken noodle soup luncheon to raise money for a Vassar family that didn’t have enough money to buy Christmas presents. With money left over from the presents, they bought turkeys and gave them to two other families.
Last Easter, clients at Wolverine made 10 Easter baskets for local families.
And once a month, Wolverine clients provide help to the Caro Community Food Pantry.
Management and staff at Wolverine run a tight ship.
Students are kept in groups of 10 or less to make managing them easier.
“It never feels like 180 kids because you only see eight to 10 at a time,” McCree said. “And they’re constantly being moved.”
Daily activities start at 6 a.m. and shut down at about 9 p.m.
They march around campus in single-file lines and with military precision. When outsiders visit, residents may be asked to do a “greeting,” which is when everyone drops what they’re doing immediately, stands in a half-circle, hands behind their back, and provide name, where they are from, and what level they’re at in the program.
Oftentimes, they’re on their way to school.
As The Advertiser previously reported, residents attend class through a partnership with the Tuscola Intermediate School District and Vassar Public Schools.
Students take classes online based on skill level, in classrooms lined with computers that can only be used for educational purposes.
“We can place them exactly where they need to be, so that they waste no time,” Fabbro said. “And they work until the moment they leave because they can earn credit until the moment they leave.”
Units where residents live are spotless, and largely because residents are held accountable for keeping it clean.
Every morning, beds are made. Clothes in drawers must be perfectly folded. Staff checks to make sure it’s done properly.
When The Advertiser was given a tour, Dan Smith, a resident care coordinator, opened a drawer as an example and held up a pile of clothes that looked as if they had been hastily folded.
“I’ll probably hit him up on this,” he said.
Each unit has a minimum of two staff members at all times, and they are required to be on opposite sides of the unit to ensure maximum safety. There can be no more than one student in the restroom at a time.
And shoes are put away under lock-and-key at 6 p.m. daily.
McCree said the purpose is consistency: if things aren’t being done right, staff will notice.
“Our philosophy is we sweat the small stuff,” McCree said.
But it isn’t a prison.
McCree said Wolverine is a “staff secure” facility and that means residents stay there largely based on the quality of relationship built with staff and that Wolverine has a “very, very, very solid track record.”
Occasionally, however, residents will try to get away for a variety of reasons. When that happens, Vassar area residents get emergency alerts (if signed up through a service called Nixle). Some then take to social media and lash out at the organization.
“When we get kids in, there’s a window of buy-in,” McCree said. “You basically have from day one to six to eight weeks out and that’s our buy-in period.
“So we’re building relationships, we’re establishing that we’re credible, that you’re going to be safe and all those other factors,” McCree said. “In between there, that buy-in period, there’s a risk of kids that will run.”
McCree said residents run for a variety of reasons.
“It can be a bad phone call, they’re afraid, sick parent – this last case we had a kid who had a pregnant girlfriend…he ran three times in two weeks,” he said.
Paul Whitney, director of operations and a former Vassar Police Department officer, said Wolverine works closely with Vassar police and other officials to ensure those who decide to walk are quickly apprehended.
Wolverine’s Vassar campus
Wolverine’s Vassar campus is in the Vassar Industrial Park and consists of about 135 acres along the Cass River.
There are five sections of the campus: a general activity area, Pioneer Work and Learn, Wolverine Growth & Recovery Center, Vassar House and the Lt. Clarence Fischer Leadership Academy. Each section has its own management infrastructure while McCree and Whitney, oversee overall campus activities.
The central part of the campus – the general activity area – includes a warehouse, a health center (services provided via contract with third party based in Saginaw) and a woodshop, now used on a part-time basis.
A large gymnasium is located in the general activity area, as well. During weekdays, Wolverine’s clients use the gym for activities such as basketball and weight-lifting. The gym is occasionally used by the community, too, such as for Vassar Youth Basketball, and serves as an emergency evacuation center for city of Vassar residents.
The original Pioneer Work and Learn section of the campus has six cabins. Whereas the original idea was that it would continue the “camp” feel it had in Koylton by having residents live in cabins, that has changed. Cabins, for example, are now called “units.”
Five of the units are where residents live, while the sixth has been converted into a life skills apartment, where students learn things like budgeting money or how to do their own laundry.
“These kids have cognitive impairments and mental health deficiencies,” McCree said. “So what we try to do is spend some time with them…so they can learn some life skills that we all kind of take for granted.”
An example of the kind of cognitive impairments at Pioneer Work and Learn McCree is talking about, he said, is intermittent explosive disorder, but added issues vary “from client to client.”
When The Advertiser visited, residents were preparing for mock job interviews the following day.
“The overall goal is that they learn to be more independent for when they go back into the community,” said Shelly Atwood, a life skills teacher at Pioneer Work & Learn.
Atwood said part of that learning experience includes giving back to the community.
For weeks, students learned how to prepare muffins, caramel corn and other baked goods and sold them at the Vassar Farmer’s Market to raise funds to provide care packages for active military personnel for the holidays.
“They were so gracious and weren’t like ‘Why don’t we get to eat that?’” she said. “It was really cool that they could give and not just expect.”
In 1994, the Pioneer program expanded by 48 beds with the opening of the Wolverine Growth and Recovery Center, still operating today and serving a “mixture” of clients, including those who have been in multiple foster home settings.
“Those kids come in with an average of 20 failed placements,” McCree said. “Imagine waking in a different home 20 times in your life.
“And they’re placed because of the deficiencies in their families, not the deficiencies in their actions,” McCree said. “It makes it difficult for them because no matter how well they do, they can’t get released until we find a suitable place for them.”
In 1996, Pioneer expanded again by adding another 87 beds with the opening of the Wolverine Adventure Vocational Education Systems program, though that area is now closed.
It was that section of the campus where Wolverine had planned to house undocumented immigrant children as recently as two years ago. The plan was that Wolverine – through a contract with another organization – would house 12- to 17-year-old youths who had entered the country illegally for a short time before they were returned to their country.
Some community members were heavily against the idea, even staging small protests in opposition.
However, McCree said that plan never came to fruition because the Mexican government clamped down on the number entering the country and the number of potential clients dwindled rapidly.
“It wasn’t because we didn’t want it to happen,” McCree said. “Our mission is to help children become victors. It doesn’t say Michigan children. It doesn’t say black children, Hispanic children – it says children.”
In 1998, the Lt. Clarence Fischer Leadership Academy opened on campus. The CFLA program model is based on a military platoon leader system designed to instill self-discipline, structure, physical fitness and build leadership skills. Residents arrive already detoxed, but have what McCree calls “heavy substance abuse issues.” The program typically lasts for 120 days. The front of the building is where future employees are trained.
In 2003, Wolverine’s Vassar campus was awarded a substance abuse license by the state of Michigan and began providing substance abuse treatment services.
In 2007, Wolverine began a collaboration with Growthworks Inc., an intensive drug treatment program.
In 2008, Wolverine opened Vassar House, dedicated to providing trauma informed services, behavioral health and substance abuse services for adolescent females. The $3.5 million state-of-the-art facility was built on property acquired adjacent to the Wolverine Vassar campus.
It was the last time Wolverine Human Services experienced growth, McCree said.
“From 2009 to 2012, it was really a struggle,” McCree said. “We had to redefine ourselves. We had to downsize and reallocate resources and rightsize and adequately maintain quality.
“We had to come back and say ‘What’s a necessity? What’s not a necessity?’ and come at it from that perspective,” he said.
They went from court to court, trying to get a better handle on their needs. There were layoffs, but there were also improvements, such as requiring key staff to have achieved higher education levels.
And the biggest change was refocusing from “corrective behavior” to individualized “treatment, orientation, and focus,” McCree said.
“We pushed ourselves to be better,” he said. “We went from $40 million a year to like $22 million at a low point – you’re talking about cutting your budget in half but still wanting to maintain high quality.
“I believe we’ve been right-sized because we’ve been pretty stable the last few years as far as numbers and resources,” he said.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org