VisionQuest shuts down

By JUDITH O. ETZEL – Contributing writer

VisionQuest, a Sandycreek Township facility that houses troubled and at-risk youths, has closed for business.

“We are in the process of closing,” confirmed VisionQuest president Mark Contento of Tucson, Ariz., on Friday.

Contento said the reason behind the shutdown stems from a decision made in Philadelphia.

“The City of Philadelphia, the city that places their kids here, decided to pull their kids. The reason was a safety concern is what they told me,” said Contento.

Continuing, he said, “We have had economic issues at VisionQuest in Sandycreek for many years and so losing the Philadelphia kids created even more severe economic circumstances. So, the decision was to close the program until further notice.”

He emphasized “the decision to close the program was ours, no one else’s.” Asked if he envisioned the Sandycreek center reopening, Contento said no decision had yet been made.

A number of sources, including employees, said the staff was called to a meeting at 9 a.m. Friday and told the complex would close that day.

The shutdown affects about 33 employees, including program directors, cooks, supervisors and office staff. The roster of youths living there was about 28.

While there were some indications, including information last week that the VisionQuest basketball schedule had been canceled, that the facility was poised to downsize, the closing came as a surprise.

Postings that advertise job openings at VisionQuest have been on the state employment office’s website for some time.

County officials including the sheriff, district attorney and commissioners were unaware on Friday of the VisionQuest move to shut down. That is despite the frequency of interventions and adjudication cases involving VisionQuest that are handled by the two law enforcement agencies.

The facility is under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Calls inquiring about the department’s reported visit to the VisionQuest facility on Thursday were not returned on Friday.

However, Contento told one news outlet that the state agency “decided to end our contract” at the Sandycreek center.

Some sources said the closing was precipitated by an “out-of-ratio” situation that created an unsafe situation because of insufficient staffing.

“There were safety concerns, both for residents and for staff,” one former staff member said Friday.

Police have been called to the VisionQuest property throughout its tenure in Sandycreek with the latest report involving the assault of a staff member a few weeks ago.

Two days ago, male youths lodged at VisionQuest began being moved out of the facility.

In all, about 28 youths were transported to Philadelphia, the hometown for many of them. Some traveled by buses sent from the Philadelphia sheriff’s office while others were moved by VisionQuest vans.

The VisionQuest property is the site of several buildings, including lodgings, administration, kitchen, gymnasium and barn. Some horses are stabled on the grounds.

District is notified

Franklin Area School District Superintendent Pamela Dye said Friday the district’s two teachers at the facility were notified Thursday that VisionQuest would be closing.

The school district had hired long term substitutes to fill the positions of reading specialist and special education teacher in November and had been looking to front a one-time cost of $4,500 for cyber school equipment at the facility.

“We were just about to ink a deal to provide more education, and thank goodness we did not,” Dye said.

The district will see no significant difference in its budget due to the closure as each student’s home school district is billed for their education.

Once a top employer

VisionQuest, an employee-owned organization that serves troubled youths, was launched in Airzona in the 1970s. A facility opened in Sandycreek Township in November 1980 on the former Hudmont Farm property off Old Route 8 just south of Franklin.

The business quickly grew to include a wilderness camp and several residential group homes.

In 1995, records show VisionQuest owned 800 acres, maintained several buildings and employed 210 full-time staff members. It served 285 youths in six different programs.

That year, VisionQuest was among the top 10 employers in Venango County.

Active in community service programs, staff and youngsters from VisionQuest regularly volunteered thousands of hours for dozens of local events.

In the past few years, VisionQuest has cut its programs and reduced its holdings in Sandycreek Township. It closed one camp and dropped most of its programs available to young people.

Large sections of the sprawling tract have been sold to private buyers and only the former Hudmont parcel is now in use.

(Editor’s note: Staff writer Marissa Dechant contributed to this report.)