Barry Robinson Center reclaims Catholic roots

By Sandy Grecco
The Catholic Virginian
January 26, 2009

“ we both humbly and proudly reclaim our Catholic legacy,” said Charles “Chuck” McPhillips, Trustee and Chairman of the Board of Directors, during remarks at The Barry Robinson Center’s 75th anniversary celebration.

In what has been a long and winding journey, the private non-profit organization that offers programs and services for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children and adolescents has returned to its original faith-based roots.

JBR-RededicationMany Hampton Roads Catholics may only be familiar with Barry-Robinson as the charitable trust responsible for the building of St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Norfolk or for its generosity towards other Catholic education venues and schools.

Many may not realize the deep roots this Center has in this community, and the impact it has had on families throughout Virginia and neighboring states.

Nestled on 32 acres of wooded property on the border of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the campus was dedicated on December 8, 1933 by Bishop Andrew Brennan as a home for orphaned boys, and at the behest of a Catholic charitable trust established in the will of Norfolk businessman Frederick Robinson.

As the need for orphanages diminished, the home became a small Catholic school until the mid 1970s when it either needed to become a substantially bigger school or redirect its attention to other needs that still fulfilled the letter of the charitable trust.

Always considered a haven for boys facing various challenges, the facility was renamed The James Barry-Robinson Institute, and began focusing services on adolescent boys experiencing emotional, behavioral, social and educational problems.

In a joint venture with a local children’s hospital, older buildings were renovated, new buildings were built, and the new Barry Robinson Center was able to provide services to both boys and girls ages 6–18.

The joint venture agreement came to a natural and successful close some 20 years later leaving the Catholic charity solely responsible for the Barry Robinson Center’s operation.

Now a ‘behavioral health system with a 72-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility, in-home counseling services, therapeutic foster care, independent living, and prevention services,’ the decision was made to seek re-establishment of the center’s Catholic heritage.

On December 8, 2008 exactly 75 years from its original dedication, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo officially welcomed the facility back into the Catholic fold.

“This is a place where troubled youth are really, really cared for,” said Executive Director Dr. Pat Bateman. “By invoking our ties to church and faith, we can address issues that before were more difficult to address.”

The Board of Directors and Catholic charitable trust sought counsel from Bishop Walter F. Sullivan and others early on to address how best to reintroduce faith into what had become a primarily secular behavioral health care environment.

“‘Go slow’ is what we were told,” said Bateman. “For some it will be a fight, as for some their lives are in such complete disarray they just won?t embrace the opportunity.”

As a faith-based organization, The Barry Robinson Center now makes available opportunity for residents to participate in prayer services, scouting programs, visits to churches, behind the scene tours of local venues, as well as spiritual counseling on a voluntary basis.

To date, 90 percent of the residents have participated in these various program offerings and the Board believes it is due in large part to the presence of Father Joseph Metzger.

“He has become nothing less than an angel to this place,” said Chuck McPhillips of the priest best known as “Father Joe.”

Father Metzger, pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Norfolk, is the volunteer chaplain for the Barry Robinson Center. He credits the changes happening at the center to the support of the Board of Directors and “the incredible work of the staff.”

“We have a better idea of where collectively the whole idea of God is here now,” said Father Joe.

“The students are taking initiative to ask questions now, and it’s not about ice cream.”

Returning to its Catholic roots has given The Barry Robinson Center opportunity to offer services directed at serving the ‘whole person.’

Without distinctions, the center brings together staff and residents of diverse backgrounds and faiths to accomplish the collective mission of improving the lives of children.

The difference it is making is remarkable.

“It’s enormously reassuring,” said Dr. Charles Devitt, the facility’s medical director, “to have a child come up to me and say, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I really like it here.’”