Sam Beals, president and CEO of Wedgwood Christian Services, learned the true meaning of serving the greater good from his parents, who were missionaries in Central African Republic, South Africa, for the first eight years of his life. Those early lessons obviously touched his heart because he went on to choose a career ministering to neglected and abused children and teens.
“I was exposed to kids in abject poverty who were dealing with very tough situations,” Beals recalled. “It kind of seeded my desire to work in a field where I could ensure that kids of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds would have the services they need to get through tough situations in their lives that were totally beyond their control and their doing.”
Beals has 26 years of leadership, management and clinical experience in human services, including 12 years in child welfare and 12 years in mental health services. He has three degrees — a bachelor’s in psychology and sociology, a master’s in clinical psychology and another master’s in management.
Before joining Wedgwood Christian Services in 2006, Beals was executive director of Christian Counseling Center in Grand Rapids. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as program director of adoption and counseling services for D.A. Blodgett Services for Children & Families. He also worked as a staff psychologist for Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids, D.A. Blodgett Foster Care Services and Ottawa County Community Health.
Beals said the position at Wedgwood was appealing because it offered him the opportunity to help an already well-established agency expand its services and become increasingly effective and efficient in how it provides those services.
Wedgwood Christian Services has been transforming children’s lives for 48 years through professional counseling, education and residential care. The organization helped nearly 22,000 West Michigan children and families in 2007, Beals noted.
As president, Beals oversees the operation of eight community-based counseling programs, 10 residential homes that each have 12 to 14 beds, a staff of 430, and educational services that include Lighthouse Academy for youths and Wedgwood Institute, which provides training for Wedgwood staff and other mental health professionals throughout the state.
The abused and neglected children and teens Wedgwood serves are often so profoundly troubled that their needs can’t be met by most other local resources. More than 80 percent of them have been sexually abused, Beals observed. Some of them lack family support and have lived in four to five foster homes before coming to Wedgwood.
Beals said the organization’s average annual success rate is 85 percent — “success” meaning the advancement of youths out of its secured residential treatment services. The state standard is 70 percent.
“We have had a 225 percent increase in our service offerings in the last five years, and several of our community-based programs have more than doubled this year in referrals,” he noted. “I think it reflects a combination of additional stressors that many families are dealing with in these challenging economic times, but also better reporting processes and more informed professionals and teachers who are able to make referrals sooner.”
Wedgwood kicked off an $8.5 million capital campaign early this year to better meet the growing needs of children and families in the community. The campaign will enable Wedgwood to consolidate its four campuses at its 25-acre Kentwood campus, a move that will save more than $1 million in annual operating costs. Campaign funds will also allow the organization to more than double its residential and community-based services to children; increase the effectiveness of its services with newly designed and remodeled facilities; and add a wellness center to its gym, a gym to its Lighthouse Academy, walking trails throughout the campus, four outdoor basketball courts, sand volleyball courts and a fishing pond.
Sporting activities help kids learn how to play and cooperate in a team environment with other kids and helps increase their confidence in their physical abilities, Beals said.
Samuel A. Beals
“Many of our kids, because of chronic and severe abuse, have never been involved in sports and other activities,” he explained. “Wellness and sport activities help them gain a lot of confidence because they become more coordinated and develop much greater strength and stamina, which increases their self-esteem. It’s a purposeful and intentional part of the treatment to provide as many wellness activities as possible for every child every day.”
The capital campaign also enables Wedgwood to extend the reach of Lighthouse Academy, a school for children and teens who are educationally at risk. Lighthouse teachers are specially trained to work with troubled kids, and classroom ratios are smaller, with 12 to 15 students to one teacher.
About 1,000 Kent County youths are currently not attending school due to truancy, suspensions and expulsions. Lighthouse Academy opened in 2005 to meet their needs through instruction, family support and clinical services. Many of the students have individualized curriculums because they have special needs, Beals pointed out. The academy started with 12 students and now serves 100 students. Lighthouse became a charter academy through Ferris State University this summer, but Wedgwood continues to provide students with counseling services.
“Prior to Lighthouse, kids who were expelled had no alternatives, and up to 80 percent of them ended up in jail within two years as a result of not having those kinds of opportunities,” Beals remarked.
“The specialized curriculum includes a lot of intensive counseling for students and their families. The result has been that they have made remarkable gains academically and in their attendance, and they have been able to finish school successfully.”
What keeps Beals coming back for more every day? He said every day offers him another chance to help vulnerable kids with the kinds of services that can reshape their lives, teach them skills, show them how to sustain relationships and encourage them to live responsible, self-supporting lives.
Beals said the most gratifying aspect of his job is the strong, long-term commitment by Wedgwood staff, board, volunteers and donors to bring hope, healing and wholeness to abused and neglected kids from every socioeconomic level and every neighborhood.
“This commitment is what will enable Wedgwood to thrive as an efficient and effective service to the hurting in our community for many years to come,” Beals said.