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Cradled baby’s feet convey love to teens at Excelsior

Ryan Kiely shares love with youth who are struggling to find their way.

When teens visit Ryan Kiely in his office at Excelsior, many notice a close-up photo of him cradling his baby daughter’s feet lovingly in his hands.

He has the photo there as an opportunity to remind them that they are worthy of being loved unconditionally, as he continues to love his now five-year-old daughter.

Those who did not experience the love they wanted from their families still connect to the picture. It’s still communicates they are worthy of love and respect.

“Then there is hope of healing,” said Ryan, who is chief clinical officer.

In 2006, the summer after he graduated from Whitworth University in speech communication, he started working at Excelsior as a behavioral health assistant with the children’s residential program.

He works there as part of his commitment to help youth heal from emotional injuries and advocate for trauma-informed systems.

Excelsior has grown from being primarily a residential treatment center to now having 80 percent of staff and services off-site.

“In the last two years, we have become the second largest provider of wrap-around services for all ages, next to Frontier Behavioral Health,” Ryan said.

Now, in a given day Excelsior’s 175 staff serve 250 youth and families on an outpatient basis and 30 youth inpatient.

“It’s a major shift from historically doing inpatient work,” he said.  “We now work in homes and schools, and have 12 staff locations in the community.”

From 1893 to 1910, authorities placed underage girls in Good Shepherd Homes around the country, starting in 1907 in Spokane. The girls were taken from brothels and unsafe homes. 

The first home was where Northtown Mall now is.  In 1959, it was moved to 34 acres in the undeveloped area of Indian Trail. The modern, 60,000-square-foot facility that was built is now the home base for Excelsior. 

Until 1982, the Home of the Good Shepherd was run by the sisters of the Good Shepherd. Then, Bob Faltermeyer, now retired, became CEO. Sue Bell still works as medical coordinator, and Marilyn Pitini, as outpatient director.   The program soon grew from 13 to 72 girls. 

Today the facility includes health care and an education program.

The health clinic has two psychiatric nurse practitioners, a physician and an optometrist.  It also serves Rising Strong families in apartments at the former Holy Names Convent.

“Our goal is to move youth and families out of long-term, multi-point involvement with child welfare, mental health, behavioral health, substance-use recovery and juvenile justice systems, so they can see a future without navigating different systems,” said Ryan, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

He came to Whitworth because his mother had family in Spokane.

When he began working at Excelsior, he recognized the value of the support he had had from family and a university education.  At Whitworth, he had the support of counselors, residence advisors, a meal program and education for four years.

Later as a therapist, he worked at another program with an 18-year-old, experiencing a meth-induced psychosis.  The youth was told to find a job and housing in two weeks. Ryan considered those expectations unrealistic, given that he had no support or options. 

At Excelsior, the average youth is 14 when placed in the child welfare inpatient services, just as he/she is entering adolescence, coming with neurological injuries from the trauma of poverty, abuse, neglect and living in multiple families.

Because many were suspended from school, Excelsior started an accredited middle school and high school on site with 25 students, some who are inpatient and some from around Spokane.

Excelsior also has parent education, special education, GED and substance use education.

“We see many parents exhausted from intensive care they are giving their children with substance use or mental health issues,” he said.  “Few have support.

“Many also are impacted by poverty, and a lack of housing and food resources,” he said.  “Poverty affects people’s ability to pursue their goals because they need to focus on meeting their basic needs.”

Ryan has enjoyed spending time with the teens, but realizes that trauma affects their brains and nervous system, influencing their behavior and function. They struggle with anger over minor issues, such as an egg salad sandwich not being made right.

Ryan, who grew up in an evangelical church and now attends Branches, also seeks to influence systems that create trauma affecting the teens.

“My faith drives my compassion for those who suffer. It also motivates me to improve the justice of systems, to address systemic injustices that keep some from succeeding,” he said.

“We have prioritized cultural diversity in our organization to address patient concerns about culture and race,” said Ryan, noting the disproportionate number of people of color and people with disabilities in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Excelsior brings in diversity.  Staff exceeds the proportion in the population of Spokane, he said.

After four years at Excelsior, Ryan and his wife, Janny, who he met at Whitworth, spent a year in Daegu, South Korea, teaching English. That gave him space to reflect on his work and be more drawn to it.  He emailed the director to say he wanted to come back and make Excelsior his career.

Since returning, he completed a master’s degree in applied psychiatric and mental health counseling at Eastern Washington University. After graduating in 2012, he became a mental health counselor at Excelsior.

“I now understood how people can change and heal from trauma,” he said.

Part of caring for youth includes families, even grandparents, who also come there for treatment.

While the treatment program is no longer faith-based—as it was under the Good Shepherd Sisters—staff know faith can be a component for healing, so they encourage youth and families to connect to the faith of their choice.

Excelsior works with young people until they are 21 in a transitional program, extending foster care for those too old for the juvenile system but too young for adult programs. 

Excelsior started LifePoint in 2015 to help males from 17 to 21 transition from psychiatric hospitalization or child welfare and step down from institutional care.  For six months, they live in community receiving help to find jobs and education, learning to make sandwiches, wash clothes, take their medicine and develop life skills.

Excelsior has a $2 million Department of Commerce grant to build a 16-bed facility to house young men in LifePoint.

They also have a $700,000 Hagan Foundation vocational school grant to train youth in restaurant, retail and beautician work.  That grant also funds a pre-apprenticeship certification training to prepare students for construction trades.  A Future Song grant is for a music studio. General funding is from Medicaid and private insurance.

One donor provided a zipline.  Another funded a bridge for a ropes course.  Others give therapeutic recreational equipment. 

Excelsior seeks support from the community as they transition into a wellness-based mode.

Ryan said “graduation” is based on developmental progress. What it means varies with each person, defined by goals set by the youth or an external entity. Some complete short programs and some are in longer programs.

“We help youth recognize early the triggers of anger, so they don’t let it ramp up.  We help them notice and articulate their anger, and develop strategies to de-escalate it by calming their body, such as with yoga or individual therapy,” Ryan said.

“The most important component of our work is helping them hope they can connect to a better future,” he said, “encouraging them to stay to work on the plan they agreed to do, in a supervised and safe environment.”

For information, call 328-7041, email or visit

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