BY STEPHEN KOWALKOWSKI
Andrew Pence first came to Summers County, West Virginia in the early 1870’s, but it wasn’t until 1893 that he bought land from Jesse Beard, land that would come to hold his grand hotel, the original Pence Springs Hotel. The hotel and its healing spring water, water that won an award for its quality at the 1904 World’s Fair, brought visitors from across the country until the hotel burned down around 1915.
One hundred years later, a new, bigger building sits atop the hill at Pence Springs. At one time the building hosted a finishing school run by Eleanor Roosevelt before being converted into the West Virginia State Prison for Women in 1946. By 1986 it had reopened as a hotel again until it finally returned to its original purpose as a place of healing. Only now it isn’t the waters that do the healing.
Greenbrier Academy for Girls opened in 2007 as a therapeutic, college preparatory boarding school for grades 8-12. The students, adolescent girls who need therapeutic healing and assistance, come from across the United States and some foreign countries, as well. In their own words, the girls describe the problems that brought them to the school as “trauma, bullying, trust issues, drug use, secret-keeping, self-harm, lots of anger, and bad depression.” Sitting in the parlor of the main building as the sunlight pours in through the large glass windows, the girls seem calm, self-aware even, with their understanding and use of therapeutic buzzwords. Quick to share their deeply personal experiences, they describe Greenbrier Academy as “a really safe place.”
Greenbrier’s staff of licensed therapists implements a progressive, innovative therapeutic program called Applied Relationality. The therapeutic system focuses on healing the nervous system, changing resistant negative beliefs, and integrating new patterns of behavior. GBA’s licensed therapists meet several times weekly with students in one-on-one and group sessions. In addition to the structured therapy, the girls are immersed in a peer-led, positive culture that stresses quality relationships. The school cultivates this culture by utilizing a framework known as Aspirations. The five aspirations—gratitude and respect, courtesy and compassion, empathy and forgiveness, humility and honor, and trust—act as a tool to help the students reshape their behaviors. By focusing on specific values while confronting interpersonal challenges, the girls become more well equipped to make healthy choices and live a life defined by high moral character.
Mike Beswick, GBA’s therapeutic director, employs other models as well to help the girls analyze behaviors. When reviewing past conflicts with parents, friends, or boyfriends, Mr. Beswick invites the girls to consider three perceptual positions: the girl’s own perspective, the perspective of the other party (a perspective often clouded by the girl’s judgment) and the perspective of a neutral third party observer. In taking a step back from the situation, reviewing their own feelings and attempting to understand the conflict from outside perspectives, the girls often gain insight as to why conflicts escalate.
While the school plans times for such structured introspection with the help of therapists, the schedule balances these reflective moments with periods of activity. The girls have a nearly full schedule from morning to evening as they squeeze in school, athletics, chores, meals, sleep, and more. While the schedule seeks to keep the girls moving and mentally active, it also allows for some down time when the girls can come to learn how to be alone and calm. Many of the girls come from lifestyles of overstimulation from phone messages and media alerts, and they suffer from the anxiety that accompanies such overstimulation. Without the taxing effects of electronic devices, the time at Greenbrier Academy serves as a type of detox. With no phones, no drugs, no boys, and no outside relationships to worry about, the girls come to focus on self-improvement instead.
Not every girl buys into the system immediately, though. While many girls willingly attend the school, recognizing their need for help, others are “gooned” or abducted, so to speak, by a group of professionals charged with transporting the girls safely from their homes to the therapeutic facility. Sometimes parents have to force their children to accept help, and oftentimes these situations result in an embittered attitude by the reluctant youth. While these aggrieved girls are at the facility, they often resist the staff’s attempts to help them until they change their outlook on the therapeutic process. Once they come to see GBA as the nurturing environment that it is, though, they begin to make progress and feel a sense of community with the girls and staff around them.
Academically, the school seeks to prepare students for college success, instill a passion for learning, and build academic confidence. Greenbrier Academy helps many girls whose parents worried they would never earn their high school diploma. These girls go on to graduate with high marks, and ninety-five percent of the academy’s girls are accepted to colleges and universities throughout the U.S. Greenbrier Academy is accredited by AdvancED and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement.
Academic Director Lowell Galford said, “Many of the girls’ report cards read D.E.A.D. when they come here (many school systems use E instead of F as a failing grade). They have maybe one subject in which they’ve excelled but are otherwise receiving poor grades. While they are at Greenbrier Academy they come to see school as a worthwhile endeavor, and they begin to excel.”
The school also cultivates personal development through the arts. Scattered around the campus’s main building lie various musical instruments. Many girls can play guitar or piano. Others draw. Some write. While the girls often help one another in their creative endeavors, it is African drumming that brings everyone together five days a week for half an hour. Not many of the girls have played drums before they arrive at GBA, but by the time they leave they can play some twenty or thirty rhythms on the djun and djembe drums that line the yurt at the center of campus. Science backs the practice, pointing to lowered heart rates and calmer brain waves as physiological benefits. First hand experience, though, shows that it also simply feels good. The thundering hands and smiling faces of the girls reveal a restorative power of the drumming. Listening to the synchronized beats of a small, intimate community instills a sense of connectedness. The tradition has been passed down from one class of girls to the next, binding the girls with those who came before them as well as with those around them now. Groups of ten to twelve girls perform and teach workshops in the surrounding communities where they receive positive feedback and a feeling of recognition; to perform is to be noticed.
Every now and then elderly couples approach the front door of the old building, asking the front desk attendant if they have a room. They got married there, they say, back when the building was still a hotel. The building in Pence Springs has a colorful past. So do its current inhabitants. But the past need not define the future. It simply shapes it. The academy’s students go on to find success, peace, and happiness in accordance with the school’s goal of serving as the girls’ last therapeutic treatment. Not content to act as a Band-Aid or quick-fix, the therapists and supporting staff aim to provide the girls with healthy beliefs and behaviors that will guide them for the rest of their lives, wherever those lives may take them.