Damarlo Breaks Free From His Past | LSS of Wisconsin
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Lutheran Social Services of
Wisconsin and Upper Michigan


Damarlo Breaks Free From His Past

The calls aren’t frequent, but they always seem to come at the right time. Carrie Miller, a program supervisor at Homme, recently received a call from Damarlo, a former resident of the 200-acre campus who was also her very first client. He called to check in, reconnect, tell Carrie about what was happening in his life, and then he went on to share his memories of his time at Homme. The call from Damarlo encouraged and reminded her, particularly on that tough day, that the work she does with the kids at Homme is truly changing lives. It certainly changed the course of Damarlo’s life.

Damarlo was just 10 years old when Carrie met him, but he was volatile, violent and angry. That led to a variety of problems with his mother, who couldn’t control him, and eventually to the criminal justice system. He was referred to Homme Youth and Family Program, our nationally-known treatment program for children and adolescents dealing with issues of sexual perpetration, delinquency, victimization, alcohol and drug abuse, cognitive behavioral issues or dual diagnosis, and independent living support.  He was supposed to be there for 45 days; he stayed for almost a year.

Located in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, the campus is a sprawling landscape of serene woods and streams dotted with multiple residential buildings that house young men and women. Residents receive counseling as they face problems and trauma that has occurred in their lives with the help of therapists, staff and family members – all who are committed to walking alongside them. The kids and teenagers that come to Homme are tough. They typically have endured tumultuous childhoods. The only feeling that many of them can express is anger. 

Damarlo was placed at Nelson Hall, but he did not want to be there – that was obvious. As he flailed against the restraints that had to be placed on him multiple times a day because of his violent outbursts, he caught the attention of Carrie, who was a brand new therapist at Homme. As she walked by, she was surprised and a little shook up by what she saw.

“It was my first day at Nelson Hall, and Damarlo was my first client. When I first saw him, he was restrained, and the words that were coming out of his mouth were shocking,” said Carrie. “To see a boy that young acting like that was eye opening to me.” 

Carrie’s supervisor wondered if she would even come back the next day, but leaving was never a thought in her mind. She knew this was what she wanted to do.

As she began to spend time with Damarlo, details of his troubled past slowly began to spill out. He lived with his mom in Minnesota, but housing and finances weren’t always stable. He didn’t know his father, and that was painful. Eventually, after committing a serious assault, he was referred to Homme by the criminal justice system.

For first six months, Damarlo refused to trust anyone on the staff.

“I didn’t like it there,” he explained simply. “I missed my family.”

He tried running away numerous times, and he would fight and throw or break things. He was out of control. As time went on, however, Damarlo began to trust Carrie. They traveled back to his home in Minnesota to see his mom, and Carrie made arrangements for her to come to Wittenberg and stay at one of Homme’s duplexes so she could see her young son, and they could work together in family therapy sessions. Little by little, he started to talk, and they began to get to the core of the hurt that was filling him with anger.

“I think what makes Homme different,” noted Carrie, “is that we have a trauma-sensitive approach. At our staff meetings, we get emotional because we are putting everything we have into the kids. We try to establish normalcy in their lives, and we treat them like children who have made a mistake and not criminals. We try to inspire them to look forward to the future but also face any past trauma so they can learn why it’s affecting their behavior. Family involvement is huge for success.”

As he opened up to Carrie and ultimately, his mother in family sessions, his negative reactions subsided. Damarlo doesn’t remember a specific moment or event that triggered it, but he started to see the rewards of following the rules at Nelson Hall.

“I realized if I didn’t get my stuff together, I was going to be there forever,” said Damarlo. “I started listening and behaving. When I started doing good things, I was able to do activities and go on outings. If I was talking to someone staying at Homme now, I would tell them to trust and give people a chance. If I had done that right away, I would have been home sooner.” 

Today there are more than 40 children and adolescents at Homme. Some come for respite care and are there just 30 days. Others stay for 6-9 months, and a few have been there for several years. Most attend the alternative school at Homme, and some of the older residents are part of a work program. All are assigned chores, and they learn to work with and respect others.

“After a while, it was a big family,” explained Damarlo.

Monte Smith, the spiritual counselor at Homme, is there to provide whatever the residents or staff need spiritually. At 55 years old, Monte, a former youth counselor who worked for many years in the corporate world, is so grateful to have the opportunity to return to youth ministry: “Homme is the best job I’ve ever had.” He holds prayer services, and although the residents are not required to attend, many do and respond when he asks for prayer requests. He remembered a recent time when he ended the service and two residents asked if they could stay and pray awhile more.

“Our job is to plant the seed, water it, and wait for the harvest. Only God knows how to make it grow.”

When Damarlo left Homme in 2009, he went to live with his grandparents. At first, he began to run with the wrong crowd again.

“I fussed at him and his grandpa lectured him, but it was Damarlo who turned it around on his own,” his grandmother admitted.

Damarlo, in turn, credits his grandparents with keeping him on the right track. “My grandma and grandpa are always there. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Now, this self-proclaimed “city boy” lives in a rural area with his grandparents. They have dogs, chickens and hope to have cows, too, one day. He attends high school and plans to play football next year. His grandmother looks forward to the day he graduates because he will be the first grandchild to earn a high school diploma.

“That will be the proudest moment of my life,” she said. 

Damarlo likes to learn new things with his grandpa, who is a jack-of-all-trades. The teenager can run a chain saw, install flooring, and has even taught himself how to train dogs.

“I like to soak stuff in, learn as much as I can and do things I’ve never done,” said Damarlo. He still has the journals from his time at Homme, and he is typing them up, with the help of his English teacher, in hopes that they can one day be published into a book that tells the story of his life and his time at Homme. 

As for long-term goals, Damarlo wants to join the military where he can use his love of building things in an engineering career. He would also like to return to Homme one day and help kids who are going through what he was.

“Learn from your mistakes,” said Damarlo, when asked what he would tell those children. “Nobody is perfect. Life is all about choices, and there’s a consequence for everything you do.”

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