A one-hallway high school in Midland, Ont., has opened for students battling addiction. It is believed to be the sole recovery school in the country
By: Olivia Carville, Toronto Star
Apr 07 2015
Positive posters line the hallways of Quest Collegiate, encouraging students to be kind to one another and supporting them in their recovery. A female student sits in slippers and a multi-coloured blanket during an afternoon counselling session at Quest Collegiate. She is one of five students currently enrolled at the recovery high school. Quest Collegiate founder and chief executive Eileen Shewen spent two years researching recovery high schools in the United States before opening Quest last month.
This high school has no dress code. The students wear slippers or pyjamas to class — and they even get smoke breaks.
They are congratulated for eating fruit, putting their dishes in the sink and apologizing when they swear.
It is a school unlike all the rest, for students unlike all the others.
Quest Collegiate is tucked away on a secluded 1.6 hectare property off a winding provincial highway in Midland, Ont. It is believed to be the sole high school in Canada for teenagers recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol or suffering mental health issues.
Quest is a one-building school; classrooms and kitchen on the left, boarding suites and washrooms on the right.
The gates bear no sign and scuffed sneakers and slippers are stacked in a shoe rack at the front door.
Inspirational posters in the hallway encouraging students to “be the change” are pinned on walls next to articles about teen drug abuse.
Nearly every bedroom is empty. New mattresses and bedding sit in plastic, awaiting new students.
The privately run school, which opened its doors in late February, has only five enrolled students. But a stream of applications from young people all over the country in the past few weeks is testament to the serious level of unmet need for our troubled youth, Quest founder Eileen Shewen says.
A female student, who can’t be named for privacy reasons, shuffles down the hallway in slippers, with a colourful afghan draped over her shoulders.
Her long platinum-blonde hair extensions are messy; her eye makeup is heavy.
“You know, regular high school just wasn’t working for me,” she says to the Star, while grabbing a bottle of soda out of the fridge.
“I got into drugs and stuff and got in the wrong crowd or whatever, I would skip class and go get high everyday,” she shrugs, pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “And, I can’t really do that stuff here.”
At Quest, rehabilitation and education go hand-in-hand. The school weaves an intense counselling program into the Ontario secondary school curriculum.
It also bends the rules for students who are used to breaking them, Shewen says. The students are allowed to eat when they are hungry, smoke when they want, wear what they want and complete courses at their own pace.
One student heads to bed for a nap around noon every day, making him habitually late for math class.
“You have to pick your battle with these kids,” Shewen says.
When they enrol, they sign a pledge to stay sober and not skip class but those rules have already been broken.
On one recent day, only three of the five students were in class.
One was absent after suffering a “meltdown” earlier that day and another, a day student, ran away from home, relapsed and, at the time of publication, his parents still didn’t know where he was.
“The thing with this program is that if they don’t want to be here, they don’t want to be here and we can’t control that,” Shewen says.
The former long-term management systems consultant is the creator and financier of Quest — she spent $180,000 renovating the dilapidated Simcoe County District School Board building and establishing the Quest charitable organization.
Shewen, a mother from Barrie with a doctorate in public health policy, was driven to establish Quest after searching for a more supportive school environment for one of her own children. She says she was shocked to find Canada had no services for adolescents “who don’t fit the normal mould.”
During a two-year research stint, Shewen spoke to experts, visited recovery schools across the United States and “became convinced our students need this.”
“The thing with this program is that not one agency or one person said that it was a really dumb thing to do. Everybody knows that these kids need this,” she says.
The curriculum is offered through Trillium Lakelands District School Board, but the recovery program receives no government funding.
Students pay program fees (sometimes on a sliding scale according to need) to cover accommodation, food and the salary of the two full-time teachers and two addiction and mental health counsellors.
Shewen is desperate for public funding and fears Quest will transform into “a school for rich white boys” unless the government agrees to shoulder some of the growing cost.
The school has room for 40 students — 15 boarders — and Shewen believes it will fill up fast.
Shewen points out the new carpet in the classrooms, the new paint in the boarding suites and the new beds waiting for students. She laughs when she walks into the women’s washroom and sees dirty clothes on the floor and a hair straightener plugged into the wall.
“They are teenagers,” she says, picking up the clothes and unplugging the straightener.
“They are not bad kids, they are awesome kids. They just have some support needs that are not being met in a (mainstream) high school environment.”
Watching the students work in the English classroom, Shewen says: “I’d totally underestimated the mental health component of this and how fragile they all are.”
The students are not only battling addiction, but also suffer paranoia, anxiety, depression, self harm and suicidal thoughts. Some are heavily medicated.
“The vulnerability is written all over their faces,” she says. “They simply cannot function in a traditional high school.”
After four weeks of class, the enrolled students — four of whom are from Ontario and one from Nova Scotia — are “slowly starting to trust us,” she says.
Shewen has three university degrees, but says when it comes to youth mental health and addiction rehabilitation she still feels naïve.
“I learn something from these kids every day about humanity.”
During lunch, a tattooed 18-year-old sits at his desk doing homework. He tells the Star how he dropped out of high school with grades around 50. Since he started at Quest, his English mark has climbed to 100 and math to 86.
“When the teachers at my old school didn’t answer my questions I just thought, screw it and I’d push the books away. I felt like I was getting ignored,” he says. “It’s easier to get noticed here. They care more.”
One in five young people in Canada struggle with mental health or addiction and thousands fall through the cracks every day just like this young man did, Shewen says.
“The services are fragmented, parents are frustrated and students are suffering,” she says.
Parents have to choose between pushing their child into a broken system or paying a small fortune to send them to youth rehabilitation facilities in the United States.
Quest “is not a luxury camp; the kids are here to learn and to address their personal needs,” she says, adding that most are seriously lacking in life skills.
They are taught how to write grocery lists, cook and eat healthy foods, clean and wash their own clothes. They go on school outings to the gym, art galleries, the dentist and hockey games.
Every afternoon, students gather for a one-hour group counselling session to talk about their fears and frustrations.
“Depression is a word I here a lot around here and quite frankly it scares the crap out of me,” Shewen says, kicking off the session.
A female student starts crying as she explains that no one seems to understand what she is going through. She wipes away tears with her blanket, and says she has battled with suicidal thoughts.
Another student says he was struggling to even get himself out of bed a few months ago.
“Everyone was telling me: ‘You have a great life, you should be happy,’ but I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” he says.
“I’d never experienced sad feelings 24/7. I was always a happy kid and one day I just felt really, really down, I was suicidal and had no one to go to.”
The teacher sitting next to him asks: “Do you have a go-to person now?”
“Yes,” he answers. “Everyone in this room.”