Northwood providing safe, stable place to grow

It has a $13 million annual budget, more than 200 employees and two Duluth campuses. It has been around for 130 years -- longer than any other entity in Duluth except Stewart/Taylor Printing. In that time, it has served 30,000 children.

Northwood Children's Services
Tom Bergum (left) of Duluth shows Michael Peterson, 12, the proper way to pick string beans in the garden of the West Campus of Northwood Children's Services in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon. Bergum, who has been on the Northwood staff for 35 years, focuses on the area of work experience. (Clint Austin /

It has a $13 million annual budget, more than 200 employees and two Duluth campuses. It has been around for 130 years -- longer than any other entity in Duluth except Stewart/Taylor Printing. In that time, it has served 30,000 children.

And you might not have heard of it.

"It's a large organization, and I think we're not particularly well-known," said Dick Wolleat, CEO for the past five years of Northwood Children's Services, a private, nonprofit agency that cares for children diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Dick Pingry, who works closely with Northwood in his role as division director for children and family with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, agreed.

"A lot of people might just view it as the bricks and mortar of the main building," Pingry said.


But at any time, 15-20 children for whom the county is responsible are housed in Northwood's residential facilities, and probably "triple or quadruple that" are served in some way, he said.

If Northwood isn't well-known in the community, it is known in the field, said Mary Regan, director of the Minnesota Council of Child Caring Agencies.

"I don't know why they're not better-known in Duluth," she said. "They're certainly well-known around the state and the country."

The agency will emerge from obscurity, at least momentarily, as it celebrates its 130th anniversary with an open house Saturday at its West Campus, 4000 W. Ninth St.

Array of services

As well as showing off that 62-acre, hidden-from-view campus, the event will give Northwood's staff the opportunity to talk about the agency's varied services and facilities.

Among them:

  • Its two 24-hour, year-round residential treatment facilities, the West Campus one housing up to 48 children and the older Main Campus facility on College Street housing up to 40. The children come from throughout Minnesota and North Dakota.
  • A school with grades 1-12 on each campus -- Merritt Creek Academy on the West Campus and Chester Creek Academy on the Main Campus -- staffed by licensed teachers through the Duluth school district.
  • Six group homes in Duluth, each staffed around the clock and housing four youth ages 13-21, most of whom have completed residential programs but can't return to their homes or foster homes.
  • A house and an apartment where families can live free of charge while visiting their children.
  • The Diagnostic and Assessment Center, a residential facility in an old mansion at 24th Avenue East and Fourth Street where up to eight children can be evaluated for mental-health needs for up to 35 days.
  • Six day-treatment programs: one for up to 16 preschoolers, one for up to 16 adolescents, one at the West Campus for 50 kids ages 6-18; and three within Duluth public schools. The third opens this year at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School. Northwood also licenses 16 foster-care families trained to care for children who have left its residential programs, and it has an in-home after-care program with a team of four who work with children and their families on skills and therapy. For recreation, Northwood has homes at two Duluth-area lakes, and every summer the staff and children spend a week at a camp owned by the Rochester, Minn., YMCA.

    All of that requires a staff of about 220, Wolleat said, plus another 60 teachers.

    "I think Northwood provides excellent services and, most important, an array of services," said Sue Abderholden, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota.

    'A lot of trauma'

    Still, the heart of Northwood is its residential programs. The children range in age from 5 to 18. The average age is 12, and the typical stay is 10 months, Wolleat said. Every child in the program has been diagnosed by a mental-health professional with some sort of disorder.

    Among the most common are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, Wolleat said. Many have been victims of neglect or sexual or physical abuse.

    "Lots of our kids have experienced a lot of trauma," he said.

    Yet the children at the West Campus on a sunny afternoon earlier this week seemed like any other children enjoying one of the last days of summer vacation.

    Some harvested green beans and lemon cucumbers from a substantial, fenced-in garden under the supervision of Tom Bergum, a 35-year Northwood employee.

    The stable staff of employees such as Bergum is a hallmark of Northwood, Regan said.

    "I think they do a really great job with their staff, with training, with growth opportunities," she said. "You don't keep staff for a long time in this business unless you're providing an environment for them and the children that's really a healthy environment, and one that people want to continue to work in."

    'Clean, orderly living'

    Elsewhere on the sprawling grounds, some of the children and adults played baseball, while others gathered around Northwood's recreation directors for wall climbing and an activity called "flying squirrel."

    In the latter, a group of children and adults pull a rope in one direction, hoisting a harnessed child into the air. As Matt Gibson, 15, soared high above the ground, he struck a Superman pose. During her turn, 9-year-old Skylar Dahl giggled and shouted, "This feels weird!"

    The children gardened and played in a drop-dead gorgeous setting, nestled in wooded hills with a view of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior below.

    Northwood places a premium on beauty and order in all of its facilities. At a group home inhabited by four teenage boys, each of the two bedrooms was neat and orderly, as was the rest of the house.

    "One of Northwood's priorities is to have our students live in a clean, orderly living environment," said Sue Wangerin, a 28-year Northwood employee who supervises three of the group homes.

    Kathleen Wolleat, Dick's wife and Northwood's marketing and public relations director, agreed.

    "Beauty is a silent teacher," she said. "It is one of our main things."

    That's important, Abderholden said.

    "Often mental-health facilities are not beautiful," she said. "What that tells the child or adult is they are not worth it."

    Wangerin said one of her primary goals is that her residents finish high school. She proudly noted that three of her residents are students at Lake Superior College this year. Northwood picks up the tuition.

    "Seeing those things happen is very satisfactory," she said.

    But the vast majority of the children will return to their homes or foster homes, Dick Wolleat said. The goal is to prepare them to succeed in their home environments.

    Northwood can do that, he said, because of the depth of its experience in kid-centered mental-health programming.

    "We know kids," Wolleat said. "We know how to work well with kids with pretty intense needs."


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