Senior Charlie Shaver swells with anger as he hands over his iPhone. Why am I here? I don’t belong here, he thinks to himself as he looks around at his own version of prison disguised as log cabins and green spaces.
All conversation and his crying parents are drowned out as he imagines what his new living situation will be like.
How did he get here, 538 miles from everyone and everything he knew?
Depression. Isolation. Screaming at his parents.
How long would it be until he could play basketball with his closest friends or listen to Tupac from the comfort of his room?
Weeks. Months. Maybe even a year.
His parents try to say goodbye, but he won’t speak.
Saying goodbye to them meant saying goodbye to his old life, and accepting the beginning of a new one.
* * *
Charlie moved into Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school in Hallsville, Texas on October 10, 2012. He began as a teenage boy who was withdrawn and unforgiving, but graduated on August 3, 2013 as a young man who feels content and mature.
For ten months, Charlie lived with teenagers ages 13 to 18 who dealt with drug-abuse, self-harm, eating disorders or violence.
“A lot of those kids may have more outwardly, visible coping behaviors, but it all stems from the same thing,” Charlie’s mother, Jackie Shaver said. “I realized Charlie had a different way of coping with his issues…it was internally destructive which can sometimes be worse.”
Feeling like there was nothing else they could do to remedy their family issues, the Shavers enrolled Charlie in Heartlight that October.
* * *
Charlie was frustrated by the fact that he had been stuck in Level 4 — the level where students have shown that they’re willing to work on their issues — for four months. Feeling the stress of not knowing what the staff wanted to see from him, he understood why some people saw jail as a better alternative to Heartlight.
“Most people like just sitting somewhere and doing their time and at Heartlight you don’t have a set [length of] time [until you graduate],” Charlie said.
Charlie contemplated running away from Heartlight, but decided to stay. Experiencing a dramatic shift, he blew the staff away with his new-found willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He changed his attitude towards his parents.
* * *
There were no secrets at Heartlight. Everyone knew each others’ stories. Other residents often asked Charlie how he landed himself at Heartlight.
“I always felt like everyone else’s story was more intense than mine,” Charlie said.
“Probation, assault, hard-core drugs and then me just yelling at my parents about school or sports or anything really.”
Charlie says that the exchange of advice between his peers at Heartlight was the most effective form of counseling he received. He learned to understand other residents’ issues and they helped Charlie focus his energy on his own challenges.
Charlie lived with 15-year-old Colton from Houston, who would sit on the front porch with Charlie, sharing stories of the issues he dealt with before Heartlight; popping pills and smoking weed. They brainstormed ways to move up levels together.
Seventeen-year-old Mikey from Indiana spoke to Charlie about his difficult relationship with his verbally abusive ex-girlfriend, driving him to self-harm and suicidal thoughts before Heartlight.
Mikey and Charlie moved up to Level 5 at the same time. They would be graduating within a few months.
Every morning Charlie would wake Mikey up saying, “We’re Level 5, man.” He says this was the first time he experienced pure joy since he had been at Heartlight.
“The circumstances and rules [at Heartlight] suck, but the people and the relationships there make it worth the while,” Charlie said.
* * *
Every three or four months, residents had breaks; the length was determined by what level the student had reached.
During Christmas break, Charlie and his parents were planning on meeting in New Mexico for the first time since they dropped him off in October. The staff had advised the family to have Charlie’s first break away from home so there would be no temptation to run away.
The Shavers’ plane out of KCI was so delayed that Charlie ended up sitting alone in the airport chapel for 8 hours without a cell phone. His family found him in front of the baggage claim of the Albuquerque airport. Charlie had returned baggage carts in the airport, collecting quarters in order to buy a meal while waiting for his parents.
“I thought he was going to let me have it,” Jackie said, “He was so calm [when we got to the airport].”
Jackie says this calm and responsible reaction on Charlie’s part was the first real turning point.
* * *
Twenty-five hundred students have gone through the program at Heartlight, and Charlie is the first person since 2002 to graduate in ten months or less.
Charlie had reached the sixth and final level by demonstrating the ability to work through his issues independently.
Some residents gather their belongings and leave, but Charlie was in tears as he walked around to each house to say goodbye.
Jackie says seeing her reserved son hugging other kids and crying was reassuring that the experience had changed him.
“[Sending Charlie to Heartlight] was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life, but it’s made our family stronger than we could’ve ever been,” Jackie said. “Strangely enough, I see it as a gift. As a second chance.”
* * *
Charlie says his biggest struggle in coming home is learning how to interact with people on a surface level:
“It’s harder to connect here,” Charlie said. “When does the opportunity present itself to talk about deep things and your issues? When is it appropriate? Because back in Texas, it was anytime.”
Charlie desires to have friendships at home as meaningful as the ones he had at Heartlight.
Currently, he is enjoying taking Chemistry II and hopes to try out for the basketball team in the winter. He continues to talk to his counselors and friends from Heartlight to continue working on his issues. He says gaining the ability to forgive people was one of the most liberating feelings he experienced.
“You never overcome your problems, you learn to cope with them in the best way that you can…It’s more of a changing of core beliefs than it is a changing of behavior,” Charlie said. “Because once you change your core belief, then that opens up a lot of doors to better yourself.”