being there

Forty years ago, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis, the oil embargo and the turbulent start to the end of the Vietnam war, a handful of Mt. Lebanon teens were behaving the same as some of today’s teens—skipping school, smoking weed and disobeying their parents. In response, a group of Mt. Lebanon residents formed Mt. Lebanon Outreach, powered by a grant from the Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, to help divert kids back into productive activities. Over the next 40 years, that nonprofit agency would change names (Outreach South, Outreach Teen, Outreach Teen & Family Services) and administrators many times, but its mission has remained the same—to help young people and their families get through the rough spots, whether it is a short-term problem such as insecurity in adjusting to middle school or a more serious mental health issue that would require more intensive treatment.

Former Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Dave Varrelman, now retired and living outside Washington, D.C., was aboard when Outreach was created.  Varrelman, 81, recalls that Mt. Lebanon had it pretty good compared with some other communities in the ’70s, in that we didn’t have overwhelming problems. Still, “the teenagers were seeing the older kids acting out and protesting the war, and they started feeling empowered,” he says. That led to resisting the system, whether that system was parents, school officials or police.

Thanks to Mt. Lebanon’s investment in its families, Outreach’s care is accessible—Mt. Lebanon residents can receive two free counseling.

But with the support of the municipal commission and community relations board, the small-scale effort that began with a few counselors and volunteers talking to bored kids smoking and loafing on street corners evolved into a full-fledged counseling service and support system for the whole family.

These days, Outreach Teen & Family Services comprises 16 counselors, four staff members and one psychologist, and refers patients to psychiatrists in some situations, especially those who require medication. The nonprofit agency is run by a 26-member board, led by chairman Gary Luchini, with two non-voting members (commissioners Kristen Linfante and David Brumfield). It has two offices: one in Downtown Pittsburgh, at Fifth and Liberty avenues, and one in Mt. Lebanon, 666 Washington Road. Executive director Karen Johnson has been with Outreach since 2005, when she arrived as a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in social work.

Outreach’s 2014 budget includes $556,150 in expenses, which is covered by Allegheny County, United Way, fees for patient services, foundation grants, corporate giving, business and civic groups, religious groups, annual fundraising and individual gifts. One of its biggest and most consistent funding sources is Mt. Lebanon municipality, which is budgeted to provide $104,040 this year.

“Mt. Lebanon has a history of supporting young people and their families,” says Municipal Manager Steve Feller. “Outreach is just one piece of that effort to invest in young people as a way of promoting healthy and fulfilling lives.”  Thanks to Mt. Lebanon’s high level of support, Mt. Lebanon residents are entitled to two free sessions. The next eight are billed at $14 each and sessions 11 and beyond are $38 each (which is the non-resident rate for all sessions.) In many cases, health insurance will pick up the tab. For those with financial difficulties, Outreach may be able to bill on a sliding scale.

Outreach can work together with parents to better understand their child.

But seeing young clients is not all Outreach does. Any parent may have a free meeting with a counselor to talk about anything he or she thinks could be an issue. The counselor will schedule a free follow-up to check on the family. Sometimes that is enough to solve a problem. Other times, the counselors may suggest treatment.

Last year the agency, which now serves children ages 5 to 21 and their families, had 155 intakes (people treated, referred for help or given information) from Mt. Lebanon and 96 from other communities, including Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Castle Shannon. Counselors also are available to students at Bidwell Training Center, Pittsburgh Technical Institute and Chartiers-Houston High School and Middle School.

In addition to teen and parent programs and screening for illnesses like depression, some of Outreach’s programs include:

ART—Aggression Replacement Training. Youths are referred through the court system and take a three-hour class once a week for three weeks. Not only does it handle basic anger management but also helps kids with “moral reasoning” to help them determine right and wrong in those fuzzy, gray areas of life, Johnson says.

Outreach can help teens navigate through typical daily struggles.

KARE—Kids At Risk Effort. Counseling follow-up to county juvenile court proceedings.

MAST—Magistrate Alternative Sentencing for Teens. A program the local magistrate may use for certain offenses such as underage drinking instead of sentencing the offender to jail or to pay fines.
The issues aren’t too different today from 40 years ago; the most common ones noted in Outreach’s 1976 annual report were marijuana use, personal/family conflicts, runaways, truancy, suicide attempts and delinquency. But today, the method of helping young people has changed. While Outreach’s main goal in the ’70s was “to provide professional services to Mt. Lebanon teens and families who are involved in the juvenile justice system or evidence high risk for involvement,” today the agency is more proactive, aiming to identify and intervene in high risk situations that if not dealt with could result in hospitalization or adjudication. As Varrelman puts it, the agency morphed from one that redirected troubled kids into one that helped identify problems before they ended up in the back of a squad car. “Over a period of time, I think they had a significant impact on what happened,” he says.

Every police chief since Varrelman has served on Outreach’s board of directors. Current chief Coleman McDonough and his wife, Karen, are big supporters of the agency’s programming and fund-raising. Expect to see them and many other Mt. Lebanon residents at Outreach’s 40th anniversary gala benefit, Saturday, April 12, at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe. On tap for the evening is dining, entertainment and a silent auction. Tickets at