December 5, 2010; Source: Chicago Tribune | Turnaround stories truly inspire. In Cook County, Ill., the Maryville Academy—a home for troubled youth—has been in crisis for some time with tragedies that are difficult to imagine.

According to the Chicago Tribune, a 14-year-old was found hanging in a shower and an 11-year-old raped. The state withdrew youth from the Des Plaines, Ill. campus of the academy because it was deemed too dangerous. Six hundred employees were dismissed and the executive director resigned. In December 2004, the remaining staff met the new director, Sister Catherine Ryan, a Franciscan nun. Given what she inherited, Sister Catherine has worked a miracle.

The state government decided to return youth to the facility in 2007 and Maryville now has a $40 million budget. In the view of one spokesperson for the Department of Children and Family Services, “they have really reinvented themselves.” Cook County’s Public Guardian agreed, calling Maryville “an entirely different place today.”

What did Sister Catherine do? Unlike her predecessor who commissioned a statue of himself for the Maryville grounds, she maintains as low a profile as possible, supporting and working through her staff. She adapted the program model to today’s conditions, hiring Maryville’s own full-time psychiatric staff and developing programs to help and strengthen families facing trouble by offering services such as a crisis nursery where children can stay for up to 72 hours free of charge.

According to staff, she has a “killer work ethic”, always makes it to morning conference calls, and promptly addresses and resolves issues. Somehow, the programmatic changes Maryville made don’t do justice to the story, and neither does the low-key adulation of the hard-working Franciscan nun. The turnaround story here seems to be one of having come to grips with a program model that was out-of-date, hidebound with concepts dating back to Maryville’s origins as an orphanage.

To reinvent Maryville Academy would require a successful director to make very hard choices, shuttering programs that clearly didn’t work and undertaking new directions geared more to comprehensive support of troubled families. Not many nonprofits can make the transition from the rhetoric of change to actions that make the needed changes happen. —Rick Cohen