A thank you note at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village


James “Mr. Jim” McGavran

On Veteran’s Day, a young man handed a piece of paper to Chris Ruble, Executive Director of Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village.

Ruble recalled, “‘It’s for Mr. Jim.’ he said as he handed it to me, a little crumpled at the edge, ‘Can you give it to him?’” 

After nearly six years with Childhelp and more than ten years before at the helm of similar facilities, Ruble found something especially touching about the note, something that sheds a powerful light on the work Childhelp does.

Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village is a private, nonprofit psychiatric treatment facility that sprawls over a 270-acre Culpeper County horse farm. For the last 25 years, it has specialized in the treatment of children experiencing psychiatric and neurodevelopment disorders, especially those with a history of trauma and neglect.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, each child was assigned to write a note to a hero offering gratitude for their service and letting the hero know why he or she is so special. Assignments like that aren’t unusual at the Village school, and neither are heroes. This young man’s hero is James McGavran, “Mr. Jim.”

“It was beautiful,” Chris thought back on the note, “It was just one of those notes you have to see to understand. I wish I had it with me. It was a ‘thank you’ note. ‘You’re my hero,’ it said, ‘When I grow up I want to be just like you.’”

McGavran works in facility maintenance at the Village, joining a team of direct care staff, teachers, doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and administrative personnel who each offer something for a child to be thankful for. Mr. Jim’s friendly nature, hard work and empathetic presence stood out to this child. It made him a hero — someone who deserved a word of thanks.

Pathways to Healing

According to Ruble, the community at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village is more than a pleasant backdrop of friendly faces for children healing from trauma. The power of relationships themselves is precisely what allows children to heal.

“Relationships heal relationship trauma,” Ruble explains, “When we approach children with unconditional positive regard — with healthy, helping relationships — it creates a framework.”

Ruble is describing the standard of care at the facility in terms of its culture of compassion and gratitude. He underscores the brain science behind trauma-informed care, how kindness and consideration from the world around build resilience.  

Brain cells strengthen in long paths and clusters as they get used — like dirt walkways through a lawn when people walk between two popular spots often enough to create a ‘desire path.’ New positive mental connections spur positive behaviors, prompt positive outlooks and reinforce the growth-oriented mental connections.

They strengthen a ‘virtuous cycle’ to oppose the outcomes of past ‘vicious cycles’ of abuse, neglect and trauma.

“Abuse is a gratitude destroyer,” Ruble continues about the challenges children at the Village face. “When you experience trauma, all your resources go to survival. Part of recovery — a big part of recovery — is laying down a foundation, strengthening neural pathways, investing in relationships to develop those skills. Skills like gratitude.”

Children following a ‘desire path’ at
Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village

Every time a child has a moment of joy, hope or thanks, that child follows a brighter path that the mind strengthens every time that skill is practiced.

For the children at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village, gratitude is a path toward healing.

It Takes a Village

Ruble reiterates that the path can’t be taken alone. “It takes a village. It really does.”

At the heart of the Village are more than 180 full-time staff who turn the facility into a version of home for around 60 youth at a time. But it isn’t only staff who help children find ‘unconditional positive regard’ at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village. Volunteers from nearby communities pitch in too.

The work at the Village is fueled by volunteer-driven chapters like Childhelp Lake of the Woods Auxilliary, and inspired by the leadership of volunteer boards like the Greater Washington Area Advisory Board.

Whether donating toys during the holidays, planting flowers in the spring, sponsoring and chaperoning field trips or serving as mentors, caring adults contribute to this culture of compassion — shape opportunities for gratitude — all year.

Almost Home for the Holidays

The holiday season brings into sharp focus how far from home children might feel when they stay at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village. But for Thanksgiving dinner, and later at Christmas, every effort reminds children that love can follow them to wherever they find a seat at the table.

“It’s a community meal,” Ruble lays out Thanksgiving Day, “Everyone eats off of china, per the Founder’s Standards.”

Childhelp Founders, Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson have a set of long-held standards for the village and its sister facility, Childhelp Merv Griffin Village in Beaumont, Calif. One of those standards is that certain meals are served on special tableware with the whole community in attendance. 

“There’s turkey and stuffing. Family joins their child if they can. Staff and community members serve the students and join the kids to eat. Chaplain Dave might bring his whole family in to help on the line.” Chaplain David Henry has served as chaplain since 1999 and served Thanksgiving meals with his family just as long.

There’s a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving at Childhelp Alice C. Tyler Village.

For Ruble and the staff, that means nurturing a community of care that uplifts a spirit of gratitude. And for one young resident at the Village that means a thank you note to his hero, James “Mr. Jim” McGavran.