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PA School Draws People Across the Country to Houseparent Positions

Sep 16, 2011

Being a houseparent is the sort of job that is both rewarding and frustrating and has the power to lure people hundreds and even thousands of miles from the comfort of their homes and careers. Why? Education Insider takes a closer look at this unique opportunity and why some people give up almost everything to pursue it.

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by Harrison Howe

house parent, tutor

For Some, A Calling

Wanted: a loving married couple who wishes to provide support, stability and guidance to needy children. Check your ego and your expectations at the door. Endure a grueling application process. And prepare for challenges you have likely not begun to imagine.

To many, this might not seem like the job description that would entice them to move hundreds of miles from familiar surroundings to begin work that might pay less than their previous salary. It's one, though, that the Milton Hersey School in Pennsylvania has been offering for 100 years. And for a chosen few, it's simply the best job in the world.

'So when you look at what Milton Hersey offers, I said, 'That's what I want to do all the time',' Amy Koring, a new houseparent, told The Patriot-News in August, 2011. Another, Sandra Ortiz, spoke of the love and guidance she and her husband wanted to provide, how 'even little things' they could do would be 'important' and 'impact (the students') lives.'

Begun in 1909 as a school for orphan boys, the Milton Hersey School serves more than 1,800 students from low-income families. Children of parents suffering medical problems, addictive behaviors or mental disorders are also enrolled. All students of the school are housed, educated and fed in addition to receiving medical care at no cost to the families.

There are currently 190 houseparents working in 159 houses. Newcomers work for one year as 'flex parents', wherein they fill in for regulars in emergencies. They live in off-campus locations until a campus apartment opens, and then they wait for the opportunity to move into a house and become 'parents' of 10 to 14 children. There, they will assign and structure chores, deal with anger and other emotional issues, and keep the family fed and clothed.

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A 'Rude Awakening'

As with anything worth having, becoming a houseparent does not come easy.

There's an online application (filled out separately by each married couple). An online psychological evaluation. A phone interview. A visit to the school. A criminal background check. An in-person interview. And, finally, an investigative home visit just like one might endure during an adoption process. 'Pretty intense' is how one new houseparent describes it.

Then there's training, where the realities of the job start to sink in. Anthony Cortes, head of the home-life division of the Milton Hershey School, told the most recent group of trainees, 'If you think you're going to come in here and these kids are going to love you like mommy and daddy, you got a rude awakening coming.' He warns them of 'constant struggles.' And he tells them that there will be days when they'll simply want to walk away.

But the rewards when a child finally drops all their defenses and confides in their houseparents are worth every tough moment that comes before it, says John Forry, an 18-year veteran. And, he assures the newcomers, such a day will come. By instilling values, expressing commitment and rewarding the children with praise and positive reinforcement, veterans say that houseparents will eventually gain the confidence, respect and trust of their children.

Throughout the training, and indeed throughout their careers, houseparents are reminded that the job is not done alone. As one veteran houseparent told newcomers in a recent training session, 'Remember, we're here for you. You're not alone.' It's a message that could be spoken by a houseparent to any one of the students who attend Milton Hersey School. And it's one that some parents gave up ludicrous careers and drove many hundreds of miles for, simply to make a difference in the life of a needy child.

Becoming a houseparent is obviously a major career change; Education Insider provides some tips on what you should consider when deciding to change careers.

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