Story by Heather Feeler | Sep 27, 2017

With all of their hearts, Mark and Alice Steward help troubled kids meet right conditions that produce surprising results.

“It is a paradigm shift to change from prison guards to a staff that can work with kids in a therapeutic model. But people are looking for these answers. Humiliating and brutalizing kids is not the way to help them.” — Mark Steward, founder and director, Missouri Youth Services Institute

Yes, it is possible to live down the street from someone and have no idea they are secretly incredible. You wave hello each morning, and yet the invisible hero cape is not apparent. This is the story of Mark and Alice Steward, two secretly incredible people with a passion for saving kids and a strong belief in second chances.

Mark began working with kids more than 40 years ago after he graduated college, but his first job was not a traditional one. At the time, incarcerated youth in Missouri, ages 12 to 17 years, were sent to large “training” facilities in Boonville and Chillicothe. Inside the walls were horrific conditions including daily abuse, violence and even death. Thankfully, Missouri piloted a different model by opening a smaller facility in Poplar Bluff with a focus on treating kids in a therapeutic group setting. Mark was its first counselor.

“Instead of locking kids in cells with uniforms, we were given the opportunity to offer a different approach with some of the toughest juvenile cases in the state,” Mark says. “Our staff immediately sought to build trust and relationships with these kids by focusing on the treatment instead of the punishment.”

The new model worked. As a result, Missouri eventually shut down the former training centers and opened 33 smaller facilities across the state so that kids could stay closer to home and receive therapeutic treatment. The numbers spoke volumes with nine out of 10 participants staying out of the juvenile system after treatment. Even more encouraging is that these kids did not become part of the adult prison system, Mark says. It was a success story and one that could have ended his 40-year career, including the last 17 years as director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, on an extreme high note.

Passionate people always have a fire burning. Although the Missouri approach worked, and kids thrived, very few other states adopted the same model. Mark and his wife, Alice, a former hospital marketer, took action and founded the Missouri Youth Services Institute 10 years ago to launch a bigger vision. Their focus was to transform other state systems, many still very violent, into programs that truly help kids.

“It is a paradigm shift to change from prison guards to a staff that can work with kids in a therapeutic model,” Mark says. “But people are looking for these answers. Humiliating and brutalizing kids is not the way to help them.”

The Stewards and their team at MYSI are now working at nine different sites across the country, including Louisiana; Washington, D.C.; New York; and California. MYSI sends its staff to these states to train the workers and in the process also coaches and personally role models how to work with these kids. The group’s tireless work with state systems and incarcerated kids is not going unnoticed.

Like Any Other Kid

Victoria Mills, a documentary filmmaker in New York, reached out to Mark after reading about the Missouri model and his lifelong passion for helping kids. She began working on a documentary, Like Any Other Kid, in 2012 to film the Stewards’ work in several states and to show how the relationship between the staff and the kids is the foundation for success during therapy.

“There is such a passion in these workers, and it makes a big impact,” Mills says. “These kids haven’t had great adults in their life, so it’s amazing to see how connected these kids become to the staff.”

When it is released in 2016, Mills hopes the film will help people take notice of how compassion and proper guidance work wonders with incarcerated youth. These personal transformation stories certainly make lasting impressions.

“People don’t think about what these kids deal with and face in their short lives, but I’m excited for this film to change how people see them,” Alice says.

It’s that compassion and understanding that make the Stewards a lasting legacy for thousands of kids. Not surprisingly, many of those kids, now adults, remain in touch. Many are success stories, but not all, and they often bring sentimental tears for Mark, like the card he recently received with a simple note: “Blessed to be your friend.”

Secretly incredible are the Stewards. Now you know it.

To watch a short trailer of the documentary Like Any Other Kid, visit indiegogo.com/projects/like-any-other-kid. For more information on Missouri Youth Services Institute and its work with incarcerated youth, visit mysiconsulting.org.
*Reposted from March/April 2015