If the new AWARE Center for Excellence illuminates the world for kids who struggle with mental health, developmental or learning disabilities, then Larry Noonan is their beacon of light.
Noonan, the long-term director and CEO of AWARE Inc., takes great pride in the new $3.3 million, 8,248 square-foot building which recently opened on the outskirts of town at 205 E. Park Ave. in Anaconda.
It’s an open-concept design that swaths the inside hallways with uplifting light and space — much like Noonan, who emits genuine concern for the kids who need it most: those who are severely emotionally disturbed.
“Many mental health providers have a policy that they don’t serve kids with IQs under 80,” said Noonan. “But that’s the kid we do best with. They’re the ones we can help the most.”
The average IQ of the general population is 100, according to Psychology Today.
Often it’s the outcast students who are bullied, then labeled in the public schools as those who make poor choices that get them in trouble. Those are the kids that Noonan and his AWARE staff embrace.
“Montana used to send a lot of kids out of state,” he added, “but as our services grew, we picked up a lot of them.”
Schools like Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch in Billings, Youth Dynamics in Helena and other special-needs schools in Texas, Utah, Idaho and even Baltimore, Maryland, tend to accept only kids with an IQ of 80 or higher.
But AWARE is specially equipped to handle such cases.
The bounty is plentiful for Noonan and his staff of 14, which includes three teachers, a psychologist, a neuropsychologist, three licensed therapists and two social workers and one paraprofessional.
“Larry’s gathered around him others who are absolutely committed professionals who provide care for people with mental health issues,” said Jack Haffey, chairman of the AWARE board of directors. “He’s done an excellent job over the years.”
Keeping the kids as close as possible to their homes is vital to the center’s mission.
While enrolled, most of the 28 students live close by — in a covey of eight AWARE group homes on Pennsylvania Avenue. So they receive around-the-clock supervised care before transitioning back to their families and mainstream schools.
“It’s taken a little while for kids to settle into the changes,” said Noonan, “but then they like it a lot.”
Highly trained teachers like Kari Hoscheid are employed through the Anaconda School District. She revels in the new atmosphere.
“It’s fantastic,” said Hoscheid, who teaches reading, written language and art to kids age 6 to 18. “It’s a great learning environment, a new adaptive learning environment.”
The classrooms boast new laptops, iPads and Smartboards, interactive tools on which students and teachers can write, highlight, manipulate and share content from a computer.
Small class size is key to student success. Teachers can then focus on 6-to-8 students per class.
With a master’s degree in school counseling, special education certification and a bachelor’s in elementary education, Hoscheid comes fully loaded to deal with students’ myriad of social and emotional problems.
Average length of stay for a student is about a year, said Noonan.
The sparkling new school, designed by L’Heureux Page Werner Architecture of Great Falls, is near capacity, but the facility can serve up to 40 students at a time.
To help pay for the building, AWARE received a $2.7 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a separate $330,000 loan for infrastructure, said Jim Tracy, public affairs officer.
The center has created at least five new jobs for the community in the commercial-grade stainless steel kitchen and attached multi-purpose gym and lunch room. AWARE has a history of creating jobs though its programs.
Coincidentally, Noonan celebrated his 25th year anniversary with AWARE on Sept. 6, which also happened to be his 63rd birthday. The school opened the same week, on Sept. 4.
It was a momentous week for a man who’s devoted his career to caring for young people who struggle with complex emotional issues.
Haffey is obviously high on Noonan, his staff and their dedication to kids who need extra care.
“Larry and his team have placed AWARE services on the cutting edge of helping people live their lives to the fullest,” said Haffey.
— Reach reporter Renata Birkenbuel at Renata.firstname.lastname@example.org and (406) 496-5512.