Dan and Kim Eagle were still showing the shock they’d received on a recent Friday morning. Welcoming smiles couldn’t cover eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion.
The couple from Edmonds, Wash., stirred oatmeal and sipped coffee in the breakfast room at a Walla Walla hotel just about the time the sun was waking up.
This would likely be the only peaceful moment of their day.
It had been less than 48 hours since the Eagles got what they say was a generic email from Rick Griffin, executive director of Jubilee Leadership Academy. The Prescott organization that has served about 2,500 troubled boys since 1995 is closing, Griffin wrote.
Inside of the weekend visit Dan and Kim had planned with their grandson at Jubilee, they expected to now use their time to confront Academy leaders and find out what was happening and why.
Also known under names such as Jubilee Youth Ranch and Jubilee Christian Academy, the school was founded near Prescott by orchardists Ralph and Cheryl Broetje for teen boys struggling with behavioral and addiction issues, often as a result of childhood trauma.
Jubilee has touted its Christian atmosphere, aggressive academics, equine and other programs, plus teams of dedicated staff, many of whom live on campus. Located on the Snake River, the school started with six students and grew to be a successful-yet-affordable option for families seeking residential therapy for their boys.
Families such as the Eagles, who enrolled their grandson in Jubilee in July.
The announced closure, Jubilee’s leaders say, comes from recognizing that the therapeutic boarding school is unable to adequately provide the current standard of trauma-informed care favored by experts. Its board of directors decided earlier this month the time has come to shutter operations.
Help for shattered lives
Dan and Kim say they are devastated. Jubilee’s fate adds trauma to the battered childhood their grandson has already endured.
The 16 year-old is called “Willie” by family members, a nickname that tethers him to his father, the couple said.
Their son, William “Bill” Eagle, was a military police officer in the U.S. Army when he met his future wife, who was also serving on the same post.
The two soldiers married while stationed in Germany and soon had baby Willie, to the delight of Dan and Kim, along with maternal grandparents Dale and Lori Dobbs.
After serving at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base’s detention center, Sgt. William Eagle was honorably discharged in 2005 after five years of active duty and commended for his service by President George W. Bush.
But Bill’s experiences at the military-run prison was no storybook Army career. Stationed there during a period of severe human rights violations visited upon prisoners by U.S. soldiers, Bill returned home a changed man, wrestling with what he had been ordered to do against his moral compass and religious faith, Dan said.
His son’s answer to the pain he carried was use of prescription drugs, both his own and medicine belonging to others. On Nov. 10, 2007, Bill died at the age of 26 from what the coroner ruled a deadly prescription drug cocktail.
Willie was 5.
Three years ago, when Willie was 13, his mom stepped out of her parenting role, depositing her son at her parents’ home in Kansas. Since then, she’s had minimal contact and refused to help in any way. She also signed Willie’s custody over to her mom and dad, the Eagles said.
“She doesn’t even know he’s here,” Dan added, referring to Jubilee Leadership Academy.
Willie began his own destructive course, displaying an insolent and uncooperative attitude at home and fighting at school.
Worse, the teen began dabbling in drugs.
It was distressing and scary, the Eagles recalled, and they were determined to do whatever they could on their son Bill’s behalf. Working with the Dobbs, Kim and Dan used a consultant and plenty of research to find a place where Willie could get the help he needed to overcome his own post-traumatic stress disorder.
The answer was — and still is — Jubilee, the Eagles say.
Shelter in a storm
Although Willie’s tuition of $4,150 a month is a hardship shared by all the grandparents, as are the travel expenses on top of that, the changes they’ve seen are nearly miraculous, Dan and Kim said.
Willie was enrolled in the program in midsummer under a one-year contract, back when Jubilee leaders were saying the school offered best practices. Back when it seemed reasonable to ask the Dobbs to drive the teen all the way from Kansas, Kim recalled.
And just last month, Jubilee Director Rick Griffin told the Union-Bulletin the school was starting its first internship program. The Eagles read that article and took heart in their decision, they said.
With just a few hiccups, Willie is thriving, exceeding expectations and getting his grades up, Kim said.
“He doesn’t want to leave Jubilee,” Dan said.
Michelle Burke and her son, Dominic, feel the same way.
Now 17, Dominic Burke came to Jubilee the December he was 15. The decision to find inpatient care came after her son had been running away for about eight months, drinking, starting to use drugs and identify himself as a gang member, Michelle said.
Their home state of Nevada not only has no legal consequences for running away, it also has no facilities that could serve Dominic, she said.
Michelle, a clinical psychologist who has worked with people with severe mental illness and other problems, is well aware keeping her son in his community would not work.
“My state has zero resources,” she explained. “We have to send people in need of services out of state. So for me to have to make that decision to place my son anywhere was heartbreaking.”
Dominic, who has developmental disabilities, is adopted — and adopted children are already traumatized by knowing that, in some way, their parents abandoned them, Michelle said.
Once a long list of hundreds of facilities was whittled down by geography, crime reports and treatment practices, Jubilee Leadership Academy rose to the top.
One selling point was the multiple nonacademic activities, she said.
“Our son has learning disabilities and doesn’t like school,” Michelle said. “Jubilee had a ton of nonschool options, like trades.”
With Dominic excelling in programs such as horse therapy, the Burke family planned to keep him in Prescott until April, when he would age out of Jubilee at 18 years old.
“This treatment center has a model of trauma-informed care, and they mean it, and they do it, and they live it,” Michelle said. “And I honestly do not believe that exists anywhere else.”
Part of Jubilee’s draw has been the number of staff who live on campus and are raising families in the same space as teens are learning how to be emotionally healthy, she added.
“That means my child doesn’t experience that level of institution that’s in other places … there’s not the loneliness of staff constantly leaving,” she said. “These people have a heart for this job, for serving.”
Examples of going above and beyond for the boys include taking them to football games, dances and proms in the community. When Dominic’s uncle died unexpectedly, staff took the teen to their house to help him process that grief load, Michelle said.
Her family has the resources to pay more tuition — at an average of $5,000 a month, Jubilee is one of the least-expensive options in the country — but there’s no inventing a replica, she added.
“Bippity, boppity boo doesn’t do anything,” she said.
Hurdles too high
While Jubilee has no doubt been a saving grace for families like the Eagles and the Burkes, keeping it open has become unsustainable, said board President John Hair III.
Hardships for the program intertwine, Hair explained. The campus’ remote location — which has also played a part in the success of some of Jubilee’s therapies — is difficult for the staff families living there. The location also makes it hard to attract volunteers, which can be the lifeblood in caring for kids with trauma.
Hair, a fourth-generation wheat farmer in Walla Walla County, said wintertime is often a challenge, with adverse weather making it difficult to come and go from the facility.
And staff burnout is no small part of the problem in keeping Jubilee functioning the way it should, Hair said.
“This is a very hard occupation … it’s harder and harder to maintain quality staff,” he said.
Griffin, the executive director, said the boarding school presently employs about 20 full-time and five part-time staff, serving about 14 students. Some students might be able to return home, some to other programs, he said.
“We have not been taking kids for a little while, understanding this was a possibility,” he said.
Last year, Griffin added, Jubilee’s leaders decided not to serve more than 25 students at a time; higher enrollment affected the deep relationships needed between staff and students.
Hair said before the decision to close came, Jubilee’s board members examined ideas to keep the school open.
“We’ve looked for areas to relocate to, and it has never worked out,” he said.
And while Jubilee’s work has attracted a wide and generous donor base, more and more people are spreading their donations around to various endeavors, Hair said.
The subject of closing Jubilee has come up off and on over the last two years, and it finally stuck the landing earlier this month, according to Hair.
Plans call for students to finish the first semester of school, then be dismissed from Jubilee in January.
Staff that lives on campus will be able to stay until June, he said, and some will receive a severance.
“We want to finish strong and close this down without compromising on the quality and safety,” Hair said.
Hair has served on Jubilee’s seven-person board for seven years and has volunteered at the school even longer; his passion for the mission runs deep, he said.
“The welfare of these young men and their families are our priority … we felt able to transition these young men into whatever form of care they need,” he said. “The reality is we need 100 Jubilees, we need 1,000, across the county,” Hair said. “It’s an epidemic.”
Closing wasn’t the near-future plan when the Eagles and the Dobbs brought Willie to Jubilee for restoration; that decision came afterward, he said.
Hair and other leaders recognize news of the closing hits everyone hard, and the situation is worse for children who don’t have family advocates. Jubilee will assist with new placements as much as possible, and in some cases that can include financial arrangements, he said.
“We can help because we are properly funded and staffed,” he said.
Whatever happens to the campus after closure will be in the hands of the nonprofit Jubilee Foundation, Hair explained.
Michelle Burke said while she and her husband don’t know what comes after Jubilee for Dominic, she expects things to work out.
“I do think there are seasons for things,” she said. “Sometimes a season is done.”
Still, she acknowledges, she would be feeling differently if Jubilee’s closing was coming at the beginning of her journey in finding help for Dominic.
Dan Eagle alternates between pleas and demands for Jubilee leadership to change course.
He’s not asking that Jubilee stay open indefinitely, but that the proposed closing timeline be reconsidered. Especially with much of the staff staying on the campus until June.
“There’s a different way to wind it down,” Dan said. “Do it a little easier, a little softer, a littler gentler.”
Willie is not closeout inventory, he added.
“He’s a human being who’s had the crap kicked out of him since he was 5.”
Dan and Kim pray daily for their grandson, that he will have the opportunity to transform and heal.
“I have to fight the fight,” Dan said. “I know it’s the right fight.”