By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of investigative reports focused on a home for boys that closed in 1994. See previous installments at chronline.com.
In the decades since they left Centralia’s Kiwanis Vocational Home, some former residents said they’ve done their best to leave their memories behind.
Some were more successful than others.
“You get over bruises, bloody lips and black eyes. The mental part of it never disappears,” said Bob Wallace, who lived at the long-closed home for boys.
Former residents describe hard forestry labor for boys as young as 10 or 11, crowded bedrooms, dirty bathrooms and living quarters built without permits, beatings by staff and other boys and repeated rapes rarely taken seriously or reported to authorities.
“I was so young, all of this is coming back to me in pieces,” said Silas Brandner, a resident in the late 1980s. “I can’t stop thinking about it. I spent my life trying to push this down.”
For the boys who spent their teenage years at KVH – many of whom are now in their 40s — burying their childhood isn’t getting any easier. They report struggling with lingering mental health issues, stress from past trauma and nightmares.
“It took me 12 years to bury it after I got out of there,” said former resident Chris Calk. “Every now and then it still wants to come back to me in my dreams.”
Others report they felt trapped in the spiral of drug abuse, criminal convictions and violence they say started in Centralia. Some are currently spending long sentences in prisons.
While many have gone on to lead productive lives, they say recent coverage of lawsuits related to the home is bringing back repressed memories.
“Somehow, I think every one of us kids feels like we’re damaged goods,” Wallace told The Chronicle.
Others associated with the home, including a board member and a former teacher, say they doubt the veracity of the statements made by former residents and say continued coverage of those accusations are damaging reputations of individuals and the Kiwanis organization.
“I’m not saying these people lied,” said Centralia Mayor Lee Coumbs, who ran the school at KVH and worked at the facility for five years.
He added that he believed many boys found living at the home to be a positive experience. He said it is difficult to separate facts from the allegations raised about the facility.
“It’s a horrible story that these residents are telling. How much truth there is to them, I couldn’t begin to tell you,” he said.
The Kiwanis Vocational home was open from 1979 to 1994 off Pearl Street on Sawall Avenue just north of Centralia. At its largest, the nonprofit organization was licensed to house more than 70 boys as young as 10 and as old as 17.
The boys were wards of the state — taken into the foster care system from unfit parents by the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services and agencies under its umbrella such as Child Protective Services. Many were troubled, some already had criminal convictions and most were victims of abuse of one kind or another.
“The kids that were being placed at the Kiwanis Vocational Home were being placed there because their biological families had a dysfunction and they couldn’t care for the children,” said Darrell Cochran, who represents five former residents in four lawsuits filed in the past three years. “These boys were placed at the Kiwanis Vocational Home by the state of Washington for … their protection and their healing.”
But according to the lawsuits and the statements of former residents to The Chronicle, the facility was often anything but a healing environment.
The lawsuits claim that five former residents have suffered lifelong negative effects of their time at the home. The suits accuse defendants of negligence, among them Kiwanis International and local clubs, the state Department of Social and Health Services and agencies under its authority, and some individuals associated with the home’s board of directors.
The lawsuits and depositions from plaintiffs reveal stories of sexual abuse, while former residents not currently filing lawsuits reported frequent physical abuse by staff, sexual abuse and beatings from other boys.
“Kiwanis Vocational Home was pretty much a world of its own,” Calk said.
Brandner remembers going to into foster care and the Kiwanis Vocational home at 10 or 11, in the late 1980s, making him one of the youngest boys to live there.
“I had nothing, I had no criminal background. Then I got thrust in this world,” he said. “I was getting my a— kicked all the time. I was rebellious. I didn’t know how to survive in that environment.”
He spent his early years in Grays Harbor County, but his mother had recently moved him and his brother to Lewis County and legally changed their names to escape an abusive relationship.
He started at Washington Elementary School and remembers having a normal life with friends at school.
But another abusive relationship derailed the family’s efforts to start fresh.
“My mom got beat up to the point it almost killed her,” he said.
Brandner was taken into foster care for a period he thought would be about six months to let his mother get back on her feet. He was eventually placed in KVH under the name Ryan Nelson, the name his mother gave him while living in hiding. Both he and his brother lived at the boy’s home at some point.
Brandner said one fellow resident repeatedly sexually abused him. He recalled frequent beatings by others.
“You’d wake up to other kids playing around with you, sexually,” he said.
Calk and Wallace said they never saw sexual abuse or experienced it first-hand, but they weren’t surprised to hear of the allegations from other boys.
“When it comes down to it, I don’t put nothing past nobody,” Calk said.
In talking with clients and other past residents of the home, Cochran said he’s heard even more shocking stories.
“They were being taken home by staff members who would ply them with drugs and alcohol to sexually assault them,” he said. “This was not only a Lord of the Flies environment where discipline was meted out with having older boys beat younger boys … but it was also a climate where every single vice imaginable was not only offered to them but a part of their indoctrination.”
It was common practice at KVH for staff to take students home with them for a night away from the facility. Cochran said not all of those sleepovers were innocent.
Brandner lived at KVH after the implementation of family units, in which a husband and wife, and often their own children, lived in a home unit with a group of boys. Brandner said the boys’ sleeping quarters would have at least four and often six or more boys per room. While in the same house, boys had very separate lives from the families, he said.
He recalled a staff member catching a resident molesting a family dog under the home’s kitchen table.
“I had no idea what to do, who to go to. Everybody I talked to with my concerns, if somebody pushed me around they would just laugh it off… or they would tell me to shut up,” he said. “I kept calling my mom and begging her to come get me. She was supposed to be getting her act together. Six months turned into a year and a year turned into a year and a half.”
One of the men suing the state and KVH, under the initials R.N., reported that at least one set of house parents at the school sexually abused boys including himself, including at least one instance in which the house mother reportedly chased a boy around a yard with a sex toy.
Brandner ended up spending two years at KVH.
He said he attempted to report the abuse at the facility multiple times during his time in foster care after he left Centralia.
“They just didn’t seem to care,” He said. “More paperwork than they wanted to deal with I guess.”
Calk, who lived in the boy’s home from 1985 to 1989, remembers his first day at KVH well — another boy shot him in the face with a fire extinguisher.
“My brain works like a VCR,” he said, explaining that he has a photographic memory. “This is like it happened yesterday.”
Calk was originally from Missouri, where he became a ward of the state at birth after being taken from his mother by social services. He lived with his great grandmother until she died when he was 10 years old. He and two of his siblings had a choice — live with an uncle in Alaska or possibly be split up and go into foster care. They went to Alaska.
Calk and his uncle didn’t see eye to eye, and after a few years, he was given the option to go to a boys home — either Boys Town USA, or the Kiwanis Vocational Home. He was sent to Centralia.
“I would have much rather lived in a prison than Kiwanis (Vocational Home),” he said in hindsight.
Soon after coming to KVH — some living away from their families for the first time in their lives — boys had to learn how to survive in what they described as a chaotic and violent environment.
Calk described an institutional setting more like a prison than a therapeutic home for troubled boys.
“There’s always two sets of rules in places like that,” Calk said.
The first set of rules were those set by KVH staff.
“The second set of rules were those rules that were made by the residents,” Calk said.
At KVH, that meant a strict pecking order among boys and that “narcing,” or reporting activity on their fellow residents resulted in a beating.
“It was always the bigger and older kids that ran everything and made sure we did our chores,” said a former resident during the late 1980s who asked to remain anonymous. “I got in multiple fights in the middle of the night, dragged out of bed … I don’t know how many times I got into a room and I saw a group of guys beating on another guy.”
Beatings were used to keep order at KVH not only by the boys but by the staff as well.
“I remember one time one of the staff members restrained, tackled this kid so damn hard it knocked him down so hard, it put a dent in the side of the van,” a former resident said.
In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Wallace recalled several “slow kids” — boys at the home with developmental delays or other disabilities — who were subject to beatings from fellow residents. Calk remembered a boy with seizure disorder who shared the same fate.
“It was constant, 18 hours a day, kids just beating on him,” Wallace remembered of one boy in particular. “We’re not talking any kind of vocal abuse, we’re talking about physical abuse.”
He also remembered an administrator watching the beating, then turning away.
“This is what my take is. … That’s a crime. Anywhere else that would have been a punishable offense,” Wallace said. “What’s worse than somebody committing a crime? Somebody who witnesses a crime and covers it up.”
But assigning blame is a tricky thing 30 years after the fact. While some individual staff members at KVH could have been subject to criminal prosecution in the 1980s and 90s, the statute of limitations has long since passed.
According to Washington state law, child rape cases can be prosecuted up to the victim’s 30th birthday. Even the youngest at KVH at the time of its closure would be in their mid-30s.
Speaking of one staff member in particular, who has been accused of both physical and sexual abuse of boys but was never charged during his lifetime, Cochran said, “We would love to have had him criminally prosecuted but the prosecutor’s office is responsible for those decisions and never took action. That’s the real shame, because authorities knew these kids were suffering terrible abuses there, but a lot of folks just looked the other way.”
Decades after the fact, Cochran said the best chance the boys have for justice is a lawsuit against the state agencies and private organizations responsible for running and monitoring the facility.
“In a damages recovery case like this, the only viable suit is against the entities who were responsible for protecting the children from the employees they hired to fulfill the contract which called for KVH to safeguard and treat the residents,” he said in an email.
Also, as noted in previous reporting by The Chronicle, dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse documented by the home and state employees — among other crimes — were never even reported to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
Henry Meister, a board member of the Kiwanis Vocational Home in the 1980s, told The Chronicle he doesn’t believe any of the allegations of sexual abuse coming from former residents.
He noted that some of the five men now suing Kiwanis and the state, among other defendants, are currently incarcerated and have lived lives of crime.
“Do I believe these criminals? Not for nothing,” he said, adding he believes they are making up accusations to get payouts similar to the millions of dollars paid by the state to boys abused at the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch after similar allegations were made more than 20 years ago. “I just don’t believe them.”
That being said, Meister does believe the similar allegations of rape and abuse at the Olympia boys home.
“I believe that up there,” he said. “(Because of) the volume of what I read. It seemed as though there was significant substance to those allegations.”
In KVH’s case, Meister doesn’t see the same substance.
Coumbs also questioned the veracity of reports based on his experiences at the school.
“I had nothing to do with the operation of the home,” he said. “I ran the school for them.
Coumbs and Meister both commented on the fact that some of the boys had criminal history as juveniles before coming to KVH.
“Any time you have people that are at a place they don’t want to be, I don’t care if it’s a jail, it’s a boarding school or whatever, you end up with a completely different society,” Coumbs said. “These boys were all assigned there by the court system. None of them wanted to be there, however there were many of them that found this was a safe, productive, nice place to be.”
He added that a former resident recently called him after seeing coverage of the lawsuits regarding KVH, and said he had a very positive experience. Coumbs said he advised the resident not to share his story with The Chronicle.
“You will never hear anything good, because everybody’s already made up their mind,” he said.
Coumbs expressed concern about public opinion if his name was included in an article regarding the allegations made by former residents, and both he and Meister took exception to the home being referred to using the name “Kiwanis,” saying the facility was run by Lewis County Youth Enterprises, a separate nonprofit entity, despite its name being the Kiwanis Vocational Home.
However, Kiwanis organizations in Lewis County endorsed the facility with their name and many board members and staff were Kiwanis members.
In an email to The Chronicle, as well as a subsequent interview, Meister questioned the weight given to the stories of former residents by this newspaper, and the ability of people who weren’t directly involved to understand the Kiwanis Vocational home and the allegations against it in a historical context.
“The challenge of youth is putting history in perspective without the judgmental outrage,” he said in an email. “Are there ‘Lord of the Flies’ parallels? Probably. Trouble is if you don’t understand the time and the people, you just got 19 events and some shyster lookin’ for a payday.”
It’s unknown which 19 events Meister was referring to. There were dozens of reports of abuse reported to state agencies while KVH was open, and according to former residents, many more incidents went undocumented.
As boys, some who spoke to The Chronicle said they feared retaliation from other residents and staff if they reported something, and thought no one would believe their stories anyway. As young adults, they found more of the same.
“I knew it was wrong … but what do you do about it?” an anonymous former resident said.
When he left KVH, Wallace talked to a former neighbor — a man who he considered a mentor — about what he’d experienced.
“He goes, ‘You know Bob, you’re going to have a hard time for people to believe you at the age of 18 … but someday, people will believe you kids,’” Wallace said.
Wallace showed up at KVH just a few years after it opened, in 1981, and stayed until 1986. He and his fraternal twin brother, who also spent time at the home, were some of the longest-term residents.
“We were kind of like the model residents there,” Wallace said. “Unlike a lot of the kids who were there because they were in trouble, I wasn’t. I came from a broken home.”
Wallace now lives in North Carolina and had a long career as an engineer before reducing his engineering work to part time and becoming a firefighter.
“When I came to the home I think they were licensed for 12 or 14 kids,” he said. “When I left it had grown immensely.”
While both he and his brother Stephen found success in life after leaving the home, they’ve struggled recently as allegations of abuse at KVH have resurfaced.
“So many problems that we had, we literally buried them with work,” Wallace said. “All this stuff has crashed back on us. The last three weeks have been, I can’t even describe how emotionally and mentally draining it’s been.”
For better or worse, residents say their years at KVH have shaped the rest of their lives.
“I wouldn’t smoke today if I hadn’t gone down the road I went down,” Wallace said.
Students at KVH were encouraged to smoke cigarettes, residents said
“It’s quite funny but it’s sad. At bed time — bed time would have been 10:45 p.m. — if you don’t smoke, you’ve got to go to bed,” Wallace said. “If you smoked, you stayed up 15 minutes longer so you could finish your last cigarette.”
While he graduated from KVH’s on-site high school, Wallace said he was never given a diploma, and only recently realized no records of his coursework exist. More than 30 years later, he says it’s affecting his ability to work as a firefighter.
A resident who asked to remain anonymous said he learned the hard way to be street smart. He said he came to recognize and understand street lingo, body language and other markers for drug deals and nefarious activity.
“It served me a good purpose,” he said. “I never done any drugs.”
However, one of the men suing the state and KVH, identified in his lawsuit as G.C., incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex, said when he left KVH the abuse stopped, but his experiences set him up for anything but a normal life.
“Others no longer harmed me but I took up where they left off with self destruction,” he said. “Hiding my pain behind a mask of a criminal addicted to drugs, sex, crime.”
Calk credits one staff member in particular, Karen Amburgy, for setting him on a path that didn’t lead him to get lost in the criminal justice system, as some former residents have.
“She was a mother to me I never had,” he said.
That being said, Calk got tough at KVH — he learned early to stick up for himself and never back down from a fight.
“Kiwanis is why I am the way that I am,” he said
For Brandner, he said two years living at KVH turned into a lifetime of emotional pain. He became licensed as a foster parent, with the intention of helping boys like himself. He said that only lasted a year and a half — that it was just too painful. He said he was filled with the frustration of seeing a foster system that had changed little since his own childhood.
“Every day is a struggle,” he said. “I don’t know how to communicate very well with people. Nobody seems to understand, and I don’t understand them. It’s like they’re foreign to me and I’m foreign to them.”
Chronicle reporter Natalie Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 360-807-8235. She’s interested in hearing from former residents and others involved with the Kiwanis Vocational Home.