Cover Story

Saving Grace

At New Dominion School, at-risk kids work together to change their lives.


by Sandy Hevener, Contributing Writer


Panaka members join hands in thanks before the meal they have prepared.

At first glance you think, “Oh, another Outward Bound-type school.” A couple of teenagers stack firewood while others work to secure wooden poles that support canvas structures at a campsite. A few campers inside one of the structures sit on logs, engrossed in a discussion. They joke and ignore the eight inches of snow on the ground.

Yes, the kids at New Dominion School in Dillwyn live in structures they must build for themselves in the woods, but the real challenge they face is inward. They aim to tame out-of-control lives. They’re the kids military schools send home — kids who make self-destructive decisions that push them through cracks in traditional educational systems and often land them in juvenile justice systems.

Youths determine which structures need repair or rebuilding and set the quality standard for the construction. Sometimes they tear things down and start over several times before agreeing that it's the best possible job.

When they arrive at New Dominion, students don’t attend formal classes. Many were skipping school and wouldn’t go anyway. In a short time they are knocking on Principal Bill Hyson’s door with portfolios in hand asking to enroll in English. Why? Projects to build and maintain a group’s campsite engage problem-solving skills dependent on math and language skills. When the kids recognize the need, they decide to attend formal classes.

But, first they must earn the right to use a pocketknife and lighter.

“It made me nervous when I asked for the knife,” a 14-year-old reveals. He needs a pocketknife to cut twine and plastic tarps they use to build the shelters. The lighter is necessary to start fires in stoves for heat or cooking and to light lanterns at night. His group, Panaka, decides when he or any member is trustworthy. Group leaders who control the pocketknives and lighters assure that only members earning the privilege can access them.

“I really want to go home to get to know my parents, work on my relationship with my brother,” he says. He’s been at New Dominion a few months and will earn that privilege along with his “Crest” in the next several months. “It’s hard to get your Crest,” he explains. “It takes a lot of respect.”

Group members remove stumps left from trees cut for camp structures.

Six groups of boys at one end of the 550-acre campus and four girls’ groups at the opposite end plan and judge the success of their own day-to-day activities. Leaders share responsibilities with the students and live with them 24 hours a day. If someone isn’t doing his share or is causing others grief, a member is likely to call a group meeting to confront the problem and get things back on track. Leaders risk being the subject of such meetings as well as the students.

A Lesson in Commitment

After 27 years, Mack O’Connor, one of the school’s three founders, is still there.

“Decisions are made by the majority,” he says. “They discuss what they will do, agree who will do what and vote. For example, they may decide they need to cut so much wood to stay warm and the older guys will do 20 pieces, but a new guy with less experience and younger will do only 10. If the new guy does five and says he’s not doing any more, he can’t do anything else until he does the other five. To get back with the group and do the fun things, he must do the final five.”

That doesn’t mean groups make all their own decisions, explains Program Director Josh Kepler. “In an emergency — we are on a trail and it starts to lightning and we say ‘get off the ridge’— the boys had better move. They want someone to take control when they are afraid.”

Panaka members share in chores to prepare a lunch cooked over a fire. The group does not only prepare their meals, they must design the menu to meet nutritional standards and stay within a budget.

Group meetings also address concerns the kids express about their own situations.

At one such meeting several boys discuss upcoming home visits. “Mom, she was drunk when I went home last time,” says one boy wearing two toboggans. “She and Dad get to do whatever they want to do, but I have to follow expectations.” Heads nod in agreement and he receives encouragement to ignore the double standard and do the right thing, even if his parents don’t.

As they enter another group meeting, a kid with a Yankees toboggan pulled way down on his head says, “We had a struggle. Tonight’s ‘night out,’ but we won’t go. Didn’t earn it.”

While members of groups with names like Tawanka, Currahee, Chatawba, Sulaho and Achunda go off campus and into town for the evening, Panaka members anticipate staying home.

As the meeting starts, without prompting, different boys mention things they did or didn’t do that they think will prevent them from earning this week’s night out. Leaders Ben Rhem and Nicholas Maldonado listen without commenting.

Leaders such as Nicholas Maldonado and Ben Rhem "risk" or subject themselves to the same constructive criticism that group members exchange during group meetings.

Finally Maldonado says, “I’m glad to hear you saying this. I didn’t think you all were working on it at all. If we aren’t doing what we need to do, we don’t even need an inspection. We aren’t going to get a night out anyway.”

Then Senior Supervisor Carrie Shaffer enters and reads from a list that includes “A sock under bed, snow on a tarp, wrinkled blanket and a penny on the ground under a shelf. After you fix it, you can come down and shower,” she says.

One of the more experienced boys and a new arrival go into a sleeping tent containing four cots. The blanket on one isn’t smooth and the younger boy shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Let’s not fix it.” The older boy glances at him and yanks the blanket off the bed. End of discussion.

A Change of Heart

Groups earn a "night out" in town when they pass a weekly inspection, that includes personal areas like this, and meet goals they set for themselves.

The Yankees fan was not happy about being at New Dominion when he came last fall. “I like it now,” he admits. “Probably the most loved friends I have are here. I know they accept me for who I am and I don’t worry about them making fun of me. Everybody here struggles. At home I didn’t know my friends as well. I’ve changed a little bit. I now realize you can’t get by without school. I used to think you could.”

In November a boy with intense brown eyes mentions that he is reading a 900-page book, The Mists of Avalon, by Marian Bradley, a fantasy based on the King Arthur legend. He says he has trouble writing. Is it a physical problem? “No. I’m impatient and can’t get the thoughts down fast enough,” he confesses.

“Actually it only had 878 pages,” he says in the spring. He’s proud of an after-school job he’s acquired and excited about reading more books. “The job helps a lot with responsibility,” he observes.

He recalls when he came to New Dominion 15 months earlier. “I was angry at everything. It was a court-ordered thing. I came for a tour, so sort of knew what to expect, but didn’t know what it really would be like. It’s not bad once you get used to it.”

What did he do?

“I was sent here because I destroyed foster homes,” he says. “Me and the foster parents couldn’t get along and I was kicked out of four homes in less than a year.”

Looking for a Fresh Start

He looks forward to a fresh start in a new foster home and running in a 10-kilometer race in Farmville. “Two of us ran in it last year and I wanted to be one of them,” he says. “They asked me this year.”

By spring, the 14-year-old boy is 15 and barely remembers that his mother missed her first visit last fall. “The winter was hard, but it felt good,” he remarks. He beams while telling how the Panaka group finally got the frame for a new eating tent right. They had torn it down and rebuilt it three times before they were satisfied.

What about competitions at the school?

“Competition makes others insecure and that doesn’t feel good,” he answers. “Working together makes everyone feel good.”

Lesson learned.


What’s the Plan?

New Dominion School replaces modern distractions with a natural environment that promotes emotional health. Programs cater to adolescents struggling with rebellious or deceptive behavior, emotional challenges, delinquency and substance abuse.

The program follows concepts developed by Campbell Loughmiller at a Texas boys’ camp established in 1946. His book, Wilderness Road (1965, Library of Congress 65-20580), details the therapeutic benefits of camping.

In 1976 Melvin Klement, Mack O’Connor and Richard Warren founded the school for boys in Dillwyn, Va. In 1981 they opened a second campus in Old Town, Md., and added a separate girls’ program in Dillwyn in 1996. In 1994 Three Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Programs acquired the schools, which retain their original agenda.

Students can earn a credited high school diploma or a G.E.D. through individual instruction provided by certified teachers. Besides classrooms, academic buildings contain a library, computers and a movie/conference room. The ultimate goal is for students to return home as successful family members.

Most students participate in adventure-based activities in addition to the on-campus programs. Groups research possible hikes, canoe trips or caving adventures, agree on one and plan ahead for the day-to-day activities that may put them on the road for a week or two.

Three staff members oversee each group of 10 to 12 students. All have at least a bachelor’s degree and one or more are with every student at all times.  Families of students receive staff support and participate in counseling sessions. A consulting psychologist comes to the campus.


Staff Silhouettes

“If a boy yells — and they do yell — the point is he needs to be heard …  A lot of the kids here don’t get listened to at home.”

“There’s no Prozac here.” (The school requests that new students’ doctors wean them off mind-altering medicines.)

“I could do this job without getting dirty, but that would diminish my authority.”

“My best friends are here.” Josh Kepler, Program Director

“School is a privilege. They must make a request to attend. They submit a plan and present a portfolio.” 


“We can ask them to go back to the group or they can ask to go back.

They are not here to deal with group problems and must leave them outside the school.” Bill Hyson, Principal


“It’s easy to talk about music, surface things. Real things are a lot harder.”


“They can be themselves here. If angry, it’s okay to say ‘I am angry.’ If they want to cry, they don’t have to be tough or cool. They are accepted.” Nicholas Maldonado, Group Leader


“Here there is no place to hide, no buffer. The kids point it out if someone’s not helping. They say he’s holding up the whole group and call a group



“We take the kids that other schools kick out — boarding schools, military schools. We can’t cure or work with every kid, but it’s a hard decision not to accept one.”

Ben Montano, Program Administrator



Want to Know More?


Log on to or or contact:


New Dominion School (boys)

P.O. Box 540

Dillwyn, VA 23936

(434) 983-2051


New Dominion Girls Program

P.O. Box 876

 Dillwyn, VA 23936

(434) 983-2811


New Dominion School (boys)

20700 Wagner Cutoff Rd.

Old Town, MD 21555

(888) 841-4421


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