INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Peter doesn't say much. When he does, his voice is so quiet the listener must strain to make out his words.
But it's easy to detect that life is looking up for Peter. At 15, he had come halfway across the country to escape an abusive home life on the East Coast. He seems at last to have found stability here at the Andrew Drumm Institute.
"When they moved me out here right after Thanksgiving, I was real happy," he said.
Peter--not his real name--is one of six new arrivals at the institute, a boys' home with a long history that only recently reopened.
The institute is better known locally as Drumm Farm. It was founded in 1929 as a boys' orphanage by a rancher, Andrew Drumm, on about 320 rolling acres outside this Kansas City suburb. Among its alumni--and present-day cheerleaders--is Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
In the early 1980s, trustees contracted to care for children with medical or behavioral problems. After about 10 years the board of directors decided the institute had strayed too far from its founder's intent, closed it, and reopened about a year ago with a renewed commitment to its original mission.
"I think historically we know what was right with this place," said director Rufus Little, the man chosen to lead Drumm's rebirth. "They provided a lot of structure, a lot of activity, a lot of security and a healthy kind of lifestyle for the kids who lived here.
"This place really played the role of a good family for kids. That's what we're trying to do."
The boys attend public schools in Independence or Kansas City. They come home to a collection of red-brick buildings that range in age from the historic Drumm home, built in 1888, to a dining hall built in 1970.
A young, recently married couple serves as live-in house parents, helping with homework, discussing the boys' problems, calling doctors when needed and generally doing everything parents do. The boys do household chores and earn allowance money.
The program appears to be successful.
Peter, for example, first moved to Kansas City with a foster family. When the family no longer was able to keep him, a state caseworker contacted Drumm Farm.
"What he really needed was stability, a good place he could count on being for a long time without the threat of being moved," Little said. "They brought him out here, and we liked him immediately. He's got real potential."
Getting into the Drumm program isn't easy. Most boys are referred by the courts or the Missouri Division of Family Services. But few are chosen.
Each is interviewed and screened through psychological evaluations to make sure they are a "right fit," in Little's words, "kids who can do well in public school, kids who don't have serious emotional or psychological problems, kids who have some enthusiasm for making something out of their lives."
Most of the applicants, he said, need more or different services than Drumm can provide.
"That bothers me a little bit," he said. "But I think we have to know what our limitations are. And, frankly, there's nobody out there providing the kind of services we do."
Little wants the institute eventually to accommodate about 20 residents evenly divided between boys and girls. That will require expensive renovation of a pair of dormitories that are a half-century old.
Consequently, much of Little's time is spent raising money.
The institute has a $4.5-million endowment but may spend only its investment income, a tight budget when insurance alone is $30,000 a year. Additionally, most of the residents need counseling, also expensive.
"We need more money to keep this place running," Little said, let alone expanding.
In the past, the Drumm Farm was a working farm and its acreage supported the institute. That is no longer practical, Little said, though the board is considering operating a nursery or a sod farm. Board members aren't interested in selling or developing the land, Little said.
"Whatever happens has to be compatible with our mission here," he said. "We want to do something that produces income and provides some kind of experience for kids being educated here."
Little came to Drumm a year ago from Choate-Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut prep school for wealthy youngsters. He's spent his first year at the farm "developing partnerships."
He arranged for an alternative school at the institute with 75 students from the local school district taking classes there. And Evangelical Children's Home runs a transitional living program for youths 16 to 21; eight of those young people are in another Drumm Farm building. He's also cultivating cooperative programs with the YMCA and the local Little League to give Drumm's kids access to those childhood activities.
"Those are the kinds of things I think make a lot of sense for the needs of the community today, and certainly make a lot of sense for us financially," Little said.