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Albany County — The Altamont Enterprise, May 26, 2011

One man’s vision led to a quarter-century of recognition for often overlooked kids

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Recognizing kids who are often overlooked is important to Brian Barr.

Retired now, he spent his career as a social worker and still volunteers in the field.

Barr, who lives in Westmere, was the clinical and community service director at the La Salle School in Albany for 30 years and also spent 10 years as the associate commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

The La Salle School was founded in 1854 by the French Brothers of the Christian Schools during a cholera epidemic in Albany, said Barr. “There was a need for a place to care for boys who were left homeless,” he said. “Over the years, it evolved into a first-rate child-care agency boarding boys.”

The school currently serves New York State boys between the ages of 12 and 18, referred by the family courts, the department of social services, or the committee on special education, said Barr. It includes a residential program with around-the-clock supervision that serves about 75 youngsters, a day treatment program with about 40, and a supervised independent living program with just three or four older boys.

The emphasis now is on keeping children in their homes, providing needed services.

“When parents see a child showing signs of distress, they can call and access prevention services,” he said, “before parents throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t handle it anymore.’”

A model program

A long-time Rotarian, Barr founded a program at the Rotary Club of Albany that this spring was the only American project highlighted in Rotary International, the service club’s magazine.

The Rotary Youth Recognition program was started over 25 years ago and now other clubs are using it as a model, most recently one in South Carolina, said Barr.

“At the time, lots of organizations, ourselves included, were stepping all over themselves to honor young people who were at the top of their class, making the most points…That’s terrific, and bravo for those kids and their parents. But the same kids were getting a lot of attention from the community.”

Because of his work, Barr said, “I was aware we had an extraordinary population that is unrecognized.” Kids in foster care, he said, are often uprooted from their schools, neighborhoods, and families while having to cope with economic woes, domestic turmoil, and emotional disruption.

“Child-care agencies are quietly caring for this population, day by day,” said Barr. “If we could forge a partnership to acknowledge this population, it would send a signal to the young people and those in these agencies.”

The Rotary’s once-a-year awards luncheon was born. Over the years, the award recipients have been recognized for such things as overcoming a reading deficit or helping someone through a crisis.

“That’s huge for these kids,” said Barr. “It starts with the luncheon, when they sit at their table with their agency, and people congratulate them…It elevates their feelings of worth and instills self-confidence. For a lot of them, it’s the first time a community group is fashioning a healthy, positive relationship with them. A lot of them have had difficulties with the community.”

Youth are often placed in these programs because of trouble in school or trouble with authority figures, he said. “Some of the profiles are not so pretty.”

Placement is very expensive; there must be a strong need to be taken out of the home, said Barr.

“They have to rework their relationship with the community to heal,” he said. The awards ceremony, he said, “changes perspectives for a lot of these youngsters.”

“You watch the parents and friends at the tables. It’s the first time those people see the child in the light of an achiever, a winner,” said Barr. “It’s turning the perception around. It’s a new dynamic, a powerful take-home.”

The luncheon also allows the award winners to “meet influential people in the community,” said Barr, which helps them when they go to look for a job.

“We’re all winners,” he said.

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