Skip to main content

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “success” as A) a degree or measure of succeeding, and B) favorable or desired outcome. When it comes to youth receiving care and treatment for mental health needs, defining success becomes more of an enigma, leading us to the question, “What does success look like?”

An easy way to answer that question would be by referencing outcomes data, like the statistics recently reported in the KidsPeace 2023 Annual Report:

  • In 2023, youth discharged from our hospital experienced a 63% decrease in severity of depression symptoms during their stay (Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale for Children, BPRS-C).
  • Last year, 99% of youth transitioning from our residential program at the Orchard Hills Campus (Orefield, PA) went to a lower level of care.
  • In 2023, 227 foster care youth achieved permanency upon discharge. 49% were adopted by KidsPeace families, 38% were reunited with their biological families and 13% were placed with other family members.

Each of these outcomes are considered a success, and each deserve to be recognized and celebrated. But numbers alone do not tell the whole story, nor do they truly get to the root of what success looks like for the individual child. In order to answer our question from above, “What does success look like?”, we jump in a time machine and travel back to the year 1997.

Celebrating Success

A youth diagnosed with OCD had a significant fear of water. Over time, staff were able to work with him to overcome his fear. He was able to become comfortable in the swimming pool. With his parents in attendance, he went on the log flume ride at a local theme park. He and his parents were proud of his accomplishment.

At that time, having been a supervisor of a residential program for nearly two years, I often would take part in interviews for prospective child care workers. One summer afternoon, my co-worker and I were completing one such interview, and closed with asking the applicant if they had any questions for us regarding the child care worker position. The first question asked was, “What is your success rate?” My interviewing partner responded with, “It depends on what your definition of success is. How do you define success?’ To be honest with you, I have no idea what the applicant gave for a response. My mind drifted to how I might answer that same question. From that moment, I told myself I will be fully armed with examples of success, no matter how big or small or seemingly inconsequential to anyone but the youth themselves.

Within a few months of that interview, a youth with a lengthy history of neglect and possessing a very limited inventory of daily living and social skills was admitted into our residential program. This became evident during his first meal at the dining hall when we realized that he had never used silverware. A few quick lessons, and we were good to go, or so we thought — little did we realize that spaghetti and meatballs night would rear its ugly head about a week later. 

Shortly after receiving his plate of pasta, the youth became highly agitated, yelling about how stupid it was to have the expectation to use silverware. A co-worker approached the youth, engaging to determine the source of his frustration. The youth, continuing in an elevated voice, said he couldn’t pick up the spaghetti with his spoon, and he was just going to use his hands or not eat at all. My co-worker demonstrated for him how a fork may be better suited for the task; even took the extra step of showing him how the spoon could be used to support twirling the spaghetti with the fork – a demonstration with which the youth was genuinely impressed. 

This struck me as noteworthy to remember. Success was achieved. Was it a watershed moment type of success? Maybe not to most, but it was for this youth. An interaction such as this does so much more than quell a brewing crisis, and is greater than simply teaching a skill. This was a foundational moment driven by care and compassion, which in turn sets the table for relationship building, all against the backdrop of safety. (Who would guess all that could come from spaghetti and a fork?)

Celebrating Success

While promoting programs and services at a local minor league baseball game, a father of a former KidsPeace youth approach the resource table, leaned in, extended his hand to a KidsPeace representative and said, “KidsPeace saved my kid’s life.”

There are times when the overall impact of our work is not apparent during a youth’s stay. But on numerous occasions we’ve had youth call us after they have transitioned from the residential program to thank us, or to recall a staff person or moment which made a difference. One evening, a former youth, nearly three years removed from his stay, called the program inquiring if a certain staff person was still at KidsPeace, and if so, could he speak with them? Although the staff person wasn’t working that evening, the two did connect a couple days later. Following the call, the staff person shared details of the conversation. 

After his stay at KidsPeace, the youth, now a young adult, had some legal troubles resulting in a brief stay in jail. While in lockup, he gave thought to a particular intervention he had with the staff person. In the moment of the intervention, the youth heard the message, but was unable to absorb its meaning. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, while sitting in jail, he had his “aha” moment that pointed back to the staff person and the intervention. His phone call was him reaching out to offer a “thank you” and express his gratitude. In the months and years to come, we would receive calls from him, updating us with the latest happenings in his life. 

His calls served as a reinforcement to never stop planting seeds: if you do, you’ll miss the opportunity for one to take root and grow. In full bloom, the end result is a beautiful flower or nourishment for the body. In full bloom, the work we do becomes evident, to the youth, their family and us as caregivers.

Celebrating Success

The Hope Center for Youth and Family Crisis recently opened in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. The Behavioral Health Urgent Care offers a 24/7/365 alternative to emergency rooms and in-patient psychiatric hospitals. Following the care of her child, a parent thanked the staff, stating she is “grateful for the services and compassion shown.”

 Recently Angelene DeLarge, State Manager for KidsPeace Foster Care and Community Programs in Pennsylvania, asked former foster care youth how they define success. The responses serve as a motivator for us in the mental health field to never stop planting seeds.

Chris H. offered: “My definition of success is probably different from other people’s perspective of success. Success to some people is being rich or having fancy things. But in my experiences, you don’t need the money or the biggest house or the nicest car to be successful. All you really need is a good heart and caring people around you. Success is waking up in the morning and being surrounded by people who love you just like you love them. Success is knowing that even if you make a mistake, you’ll be okay. I’ve learned that nothing got me further in life than having a good heart, even when times were tough. I always try to see the best in people instead of the worst. I always give second chances and I’m a sucker for those in need. Life shows you very early on that it is not fair, and it seems to be that way for everyone I know. Success is knowing that no matter how bad it goes, or how low you get, there’s sunshine tomorrow. I find it difficult to always stay positive, but when I feel myself getting down, I think of all the people who brought me up. That gets me through the hardest days. Find happiness, find love, find success.”

Ed S. stated: “My definition of success means being a self-sufficient business owner with lots of positive loving friends and family.  A goal that’s redefined every day as I complete tasks and assist others in finding their own success stories.”

Tasha S. replied: “Success is not measured by your capacity to keep everything in order; it’s taking back control of something that has been stripped away. It’s determined by your ability to trust that you will fall, but you have the resilience to get up and try again. I wasn’t taught resilience, I had no choice but to be.”


As it turns out, that deceptively simple-sounding question “What does success look like?” has a universe of answers.  The common element to them?  The individual in treatment and their needs and dreams drive their definition of success; our job as mental health professionals is to provide the guardrails allowing their safe passage to a brighter and better tomorrow.

My drifting mind from 25-odd years ago is now ready with a rock-solid reply. So … go ahead, ask me again: “What is your success rate?” 

Just be prepared for a lengthy response.

Chris Sylvester

Chris Sylvester joined KidsPeace in 1992 as a direct care worker at the Graham Lake Campus in Ellsworth, Maine, advancing to take on a variety of roles and responsibilities. In 2014, Chris became National Customer Relations Liaison for KidsPeace covering the Northeast Territory, which includes all of New England and New York, to ensure customers are aware of the KidsPeace Continuum of Care and the treatment services offered for youth and families.