Recently, Maria and I paid a visit to the Alternative House of Vienna. Maria and I, like many people at George Mason and the Falls Church community, were completely unfamiliar with the Alternative House and what it had to offer. Going in, we knew a few basic but vague details; for starters we knew that the house was the home to many teens that were either troubled, or abandoned. Also we both knew that the service provided was free and welcoming. What Maria and I did not know was how extensive, supportive, and life changing the program actually was.
Speaking with Ms. Meghan Huebner, the Director of Residential Services at the Alternative House, Maria and I obtained an extensive amount of knowledge on the process and results of the program the house offers.
The Alternative House of Vienna is a shelter that provides intervention for teens in “crisis.” When teens find themselves in situations, whether it be in or outside of the home, they can find support during that harsh time.
As a shelter for under-aged men and women, the Alternative House must maintain parental contact and approval, thus the shelter works with the parent or guardian of said teen to assure their stay is agreed upon. The teens that enter the house can stay for up to three full weeks, where they have the free will to discontinue the program at their choosing.
Although three weeks seems like a short period time for the program to help a teen in crisis, Huebner assured that they “work with the family to find a safe place to stay. Most teens return home when they come in,” but for those that cannot find safety and comfort back home, the program helps in facilitating “living with another family member, or a different living situation.”
Once in the program, teens have a number of freedoms and responsibilities and obligations, along with abiding to a set schedule to provide structure. The shelter's main goal is to counsel teens so that they can be able to matriculate back into a normal life at home and in society.
In the program, a resident will go through a series of counseling sessions, both group and individual, focusing on conflict resolution, anger management, communication skills, etc. “Roll play” is a highlight of the counseling sessions, where Huebner described this form of counseling as a way for the teens to see “how they can respond to a situation the right way.” Focusing on changing the teen personally, all the activities give teens the opportunity to focus on their individual issues in a way that can benefit them in the long run.
A day in the life of resident of the Alternative House is not as tedious and mind numbing as it might seem. Aside from the counseling sessions, teens have lots of opportunity for fun and social activities.
Students in school arrive at the house right after school, where they are welcomed warmly. Arriving from school, the teens immediately have a “free time” where they can leave the house, make phone calls, have a friend over and basically do what they please. When free time ends, it is time for all homework to be completed; the schedule calls for 4:30 p.m. to roughly 5:30 p.m. for completion of school work.
Next comes dinner, then chores, where everyone works as a team to clean up. Following “chore time” is group counseling where most of the roll-playing activities happen. Then comes one last free time where teens are not allowed to leave the house, but all other privileges (phone use, games, etc...) are given.
Finally, there is “quiet time” where the individual counseling sessions occur and then, on weekdays, lights-out at 10:30 p.m. As you can see, residents are able to maintain most of the freedoms that they would have outside of the program. The structure and schedule aspect of the house is meant only to provide the needed discipline for a teen to able to deal with life when that structure is absent.
As, briefly mentioned earlier, it is important for teens to know that the Alternative House does go by an “Open Door Policy,” meaning that a teen has the right to leave the program whenever he or she is ready to leave.
The Alternative House takes their own actions to help spread the word of their services, and intervene with teens in a “crisis” situation. Staff works with police officers, school counselors, and case workers who are working with these teens in crisis.
Huebner herself runs a youth counsel made up of teens who go into their high schools and educate their peers on the Alternative House and its services. This is so if a friend were to hear of another friend in crisis, they have the knowledge to easily refer said friend to the house. The website and email is checked “physically nine times a day” as well as a hotline that is attended to “all the time, every single minute, everyday of the year,” so no teen misses their opportunity for refuge.
Huebner even gave an example where she got a call from a teen in crises at “3:45 a.m.” The phone process is taken very seriously and staff talks with teens to get them set up in the shelter or with any counseling. Be forewarned that if you call the counselors, they will ask numerous questions with the only intention of providing the best help and guidance.
Interviews happen with the teen first, then with the guardian to assure agreement. Because the shelter can only hold eight residents at a time, the staff does their best to provide as much over the phone counseling that they can. If the house were to be full when you call Alternative House, they will not leave a teen, for lack of better words, without a paddle. The staff will work to find referrals or places where the teen can stay.
The Alternative House is a place for teens to find refuge and support in a time of need. Teens going through the program have the ability to learn ways to deal with their issues with positive reinforcement. The teens find a safe place to stay, with positive environment, and the perspective that they are not the only ones with problems, and their problems can be solved.
If you or any teen you know is in a crisis situation, do not hesitate to contact or refer him or her the Alternative House of Vienna. The hotline 1800-SAY-TEEN (782-8336) is open all the time and there will always be someone there to help.