Helping girls find a way to a better life
Minnesota Girls Academy (MGA) in Bricelyn serves a real need
Despite all the rules and regulations dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Girls Academy in Bricelyn is operating as best they can, under the circumstances.
“We are at full capacity with eight girls,” says Toni Guider, the Admissions/Marketing/Program Development director at the academy. “We are in the process of construction so that we can add some square footage and have more room for the girls to spread out, plus room for some office space and recreational areas.”
However, construction has been moving along slowly, somewhat due to the pandemic.
There have been other issues due to COVID-19 as well.
“We used to have the girls taking classes – in person – through USC and through Southern Plains Arise Academy (formerly Southern Plains Educational Cooperative).” Guider says. “Now, as of last March, our education is at the residence where we are doing distance learning.”
The program used to have parents and others visiting each week. Now that has become a real challenge, Guider says, adding that a lot of it is done via Facetime and Zoom type programs. She adds these visits are important, to let the girls know they are not abandoned – even if the visits have had to become virtual.
“We are pretty small and are trying our best to see no one gets sick,” she explains. “Not the girls, and not our staff.”
There are 13 full-time employees at the academy and several part-time ones. The facility is a full-time, 24-hour a day, residential treatment center, so it needs that number of staff. And, all of the staff are females, which Guider says helps with guiding the young ladies in a more nurturing way with their struggles.
Guider, originally from Pennsylvania, has been here for four years. But, she has 27 years of experience in adolescent treatment in all sorts of capacities.
She says they are blessed to have an excellent staff, all of them local residents.
And, they now have to do things a bit differently than they had been, thanks to COVID.
Guider says they used to be able to take the girls out, to places like roller skating, bowling, the movies and going to places like the county fairs and other activities. But, that is not happening this year.
“We also try and do some community service each week,” she adds. “Things like cleaning churches in Kiester, helping the Bricelyn Fire Department, helping at Sister Care (formerly Nicollet Place) in Blue Earth. Now it is things like doing chalk drawings on the sidewalk at the Blue Earth Legion to show support for veterans. We are looking for more non-traditional ways to give back to the communities which support us.”
It is important, she says, for the girls to learn to focus on others, rather than just on themselves.
But, the staff does focus on the girls as far as health goes, Guider says.
“We take them to UHD where they see a certified physicians assistant, Mandy Carr,” she explains. “We use Blue Earth Drug for our medications. The girls go to Dr. Grandgenett for dental work and Blue Earth Valley Eye Clinic for their vision needs. All of these places have been wonderful to work with, sometimes letting us show up on a moment’s notice. And for the girls, it can be the first time they have been to a doctor, dentist or optometrist, or maybe they have not been to one in a long time.”
The Minnesota Girls Academy started in January of 2017. It is housed in one of the six residences in Bricelyn which were originally purchased, along with the former Bricelyn school building, to be used as a school for troubled Jewish girls from New York.
“Since we started the Minnesota Girls Academy in 2017, we have treated a total of 38 girls here,” Guider says. “They have come from 26 different counties in Minnesota, but most of them are from the southern part of the state.”
She adds that most of the girls stay at the academy from six to 12 months, with an average being about nine months for a stay.
“The girls are between 13 and 17 years old,” Guider says. “The have to meet some criteria to be accepted here. They need to be having some struggle in their lives, suffering from emotional or mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, or physical trauma such as sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect.”
Some have harmed themselves or threatened to do so, or have runaway from home, or are truant from school or have other serious issues.
And, they have to have exhausted other solutions to their problems.
“We accept girls from all religions, or race or ethnicity or background,” Guider says. “We are a licensed residential treatment facility for girls, with licenses from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Department of Health.”
Guider says they have some plans for expanding the facility in the future.
“We would like to grow enough to be able to have 10 girls here,” she says. “And, perhaps using the old Bricelyn school building, develop a mirror program of what we have for girls, only for boys, also aged 13 to 17.”
She says that could be a ways into the future, but that is their dream. And, she says, the county agencies in southern Minnesota they work with want them to try and expand, as there is a real need for what they do.
For now, just like about everyone else, they are looking forward to getting back to normal, and putting COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror.
“Being in a small rural area like Bricelyn has some advantages,” Guider says. “For instance, it is a lot harder for them to run away. But, on the other hand, it is difficult when we have to be so isolated from their families, or being able to go out to activities. It can be a real challenge at times, just like it is for all the parents out there. But we will get through this.”